In Brief: Several members of the David Crowder Band have soldiered on without Crowder… and while the results aren’t terribly surprising or deep, this is still a pretty solid, rock-oriented worship album, and I say that at a point in my life where I’m not at all easily impressed by such things.
You may have gotten the impression from the Gungor review I just wrote, or really anything I’ve written in the last ten years or so that discusses contemporary Christian “worship” music, its perennial popularity in the marketplace, and its apparent acceptance as the default musical style in a lot of Protestant churches, that I’m not a big fan of the genre. That really isn’t true. Sure, I make fun of a lot of the artists who produce such music, when I’m not busy leveling more serious accusations against the quality of their music, but my issue is really the repetition of it, with so many artists all scrambling to copy “what works” and not really thinking outside the box much, which is sort of built into the genre since the whole idea is to create songs that a worship leader can easily pick up, teach a team of amateur musicians to play, and get a congregation singing along to without too much hassle. In theory, I don’t have any theological issue with this. In practice, I think it’s becoming an issue of pouring new wine into old wineskins in a lot of cases. It’s the biggest example of people being willfully blinded to the actual merits of the music simply because they deem its intent to be the most noble thing that music could ever do. That’s what also makes it the most challenging thing to do well – to really help us meditate on and offer thanks to God for some aspect of His character, rather than just to lull us into a comfort zone where a catchy song we can sing back from memory doesn’t require us to think very much at all. But when it is done well, I’ll be among the first to say so (at least, if I can pick it out from the increasingly nondescript crowd of artists all vying to be the next Chris Tomlin).
One group that I deeply respected for making great strides in this genre while still maintaining their accessibility and having several of their songs actively used in churches, was the David Crowder* Band (asterisk optional). Those guys from Waco, Texas, with their ironic hair and their genre-hopping sound, could just as easily turn out an electrified praise anthem guaranteed to light up radio waves and Sunday services, as they could take a total left turn and put out something more pensive or even downright weird that illustrated a deeper theological concept in a fun way. They were smart guys who knew when to keep it simple and reverent, and when to go high-concept and challenge our notions of what types of music could be considered sacred. I really wasn’t prepared for them to announce their impending amicable breakup in 2011, but at least it gave us a memorable final tour, and a monolith of a final album in early 2012. In their wake, Crowder seems to have embarked on a solo career that has yet to produce any commercially released material, but several other members of the band have continued on as The Digital Age. And if you can imagine the DCB at their catchiest, most accessible, and most sing-along-able, while retaining the musical muscle of most of the band’s best material, just without the weird forays into twangy acoustic stuff and jumping genres mid-song and extremely long, excited song titles and all that, then that’s pretty much how these guys roll.
I had actually thought that when The Digital Age first released Rehearsals, a 6-song EP on which they covered a few DCB songs, along with a handful of other covers including a hymn, and a few original tracks, they were going to shape up as more of a “post-modern liturgical” sort of act like Gungor, just not as down-tempo or focused on baroque/indie pop sorts of arrangements. But their full-length debut, Evening:Morning, finds them more or less committed to the type of electric guitar-driven, stadium-sized, bleep-bloop assisted anthems that were the DCB’s biggest hits, slowing down here and there for more “traditionally contemporary” worship ballads that can still build up in a big way just like their predecessors in Hillsongs or Delirious? or… heck, you know the drill, but not really coloring outside the lines a whole lot. At its best, the album echoes the colorful and highly addictive style of the DCB’s Church Music (quite possible my favorite “worship album” of all time), but without the thematic heft. While everyone in this band is musically talented and they play their hearts out here, I somehow suspect that none of these guys are quite as “visionary” as Crowder was when it came to crafting a selection of songs around a theme. The liner notes list each song as systematically corresponding to consecutive hours of the night, starting at 6 PM just like a Sunday evening service that’s a little more youth-oriented than your church’s morning service might be, and ending at 6 AM with an appropriately placed acoustic ballad to greet the sunrise. Nothing about the songs really screams out the need to be in that specific order, or explains how they relate to those specific hours of the night, so it’s a loose them at best, but at least they’re trying. The songs, for the most part, are original compositions, with a few cover choices redone in their slightly more aggressive style, just like you would have heard on a SonicFlood album back in the day (well, at least that one album before the band rotated out all of its old members and became utterly terrible). It’s nothing new, but for what it is, it’s a remarkably solid listen that holds up better than I’d expect such a thing to this long after the idea of worship music with rockin’ guitars has cease to excite me in and of itself.
So is it hypocritical of me to enjoy The Digital Age when I criticize so many of their contemporaries for fitting too tightly into the mold? I wonder this at times when I listen to the album and find myself conflicted over songs that are incredibly catchy, but a bit too “cheerleader-y” in their nature to really take me to a deeper place of celebration or reflection. Am I just giving these guys a pass because they used to be in one of my favorite bands? That may be the reason I actually bothered to listen to them, but let’s imagine these guys were a bunch of no-names who had never written or played a worship song before in their lives. I would still think that they do a better job of it than most. I withhold that precious fifth star from them because I’m not seeing that overall spark that takes Evening:Morning beyond a mere collection of good songs and makes the album feel like a true event like most DCB albums did. (And also because a few of the songs are admittedly pretty cheesy.) But I can’t withhold that fourth star, because of my belief that an artist can craft a solid album veen within the bounds of a well-worn genre that does show some genuine passion and creative spark. If judged on sheer originality, this album would probably rate a C, but judged on how much I enjoy it, I can give it no less than a B. If that seems inexplicable based on my history of holding worship bands to very rigorous standards, then well, I suppose it’s no less arbitrary than me getting sick of “God of This City” so darn quickly while “How Great Is Our God” still kinda puts a smile on my face. (I know, I always pick on poor Chris Tomlin, but he’s the de facto standard bearer these days and everyone seems to want to sound like him, so I might as well be honest and say that I still like some of his stuff.) Take it with a grain of salt if you’re already skeptical about this kind of music. But if you’re the type who regularly eats up the Top 40 of whatever CCM throws at you, then please do give this one a listen – I promise you it’s an improvement over your usual.
“Love, You’ve captured me again.” Those words hit you right at the beginning of the album, and it isn’t too long before they’re joined by a galloping drum beat and what sounds like snippets of a children’s choir. While the rhythmic cadence of this one is nothing short of infectious (thanks to drummer B-Wack, delivering his best as usual), it’s kind of an awkward start for the band, because it pretty quickly puts them in “happy-go-lucky cheerleading mode”, which is the sort of thing that I have limited tolerance for because it somewhat uncomfortably blurs the line between worship and superficially loopy little love songs. For what it is, it’s still better produced and performed than a great many examples in the genre. I wouldn’t necessarily complain if my church started singing this song. But it isn’t the best that the Digital Age has to offer and probably shouldn’t be the album opener.
2. Symphony of Grace
Picking up the pace even more, and adding some more muscular guitar riffing, is this song which for some reason makes me think back to the first time I heard SonicFlood’s “Holy One”. It may be because Mike Dodson, who seems to sing lead most often, has a bit of that same “vocal huskiness” that Jeff Deyo did. In any event, this one bugs me slightly for basing its title on a metaphor that it never bothers to explore. (How would different instruments interact in a symphony of grace? I bet that would be beautiful!) But it wins me back simply by being musically solid – where most worship leaders trying to do the arena rock thing nowadays would settle for simple power chords, Jack Parker and Mark Waldrop are riffers at heart, their skills honed through several of their more over-the-top excursions during the Crowder years, so it’s a fun listen if not a terribly meaningful one.
3. All the Poor and Powerless
Carrying a little more thematic weight is this sturdy little power ballad, lovingly borrowed from All Sons and Daughters, which was the highlight of the Rehearsals EP and I’m glad it made the transition to the full-length album. While it’s as short on details as many of TDA’s original songs, it manages to prompt vivid imagery in the listener’s mind as they sing of the world’s most wealthy and its least fortunate, the happiest and the most downtrodden, all being brought into the fold to know that God is good and kind and just. In some ways it reminds me of the Delirious? song “All God’s Children” (and there’s a band who could sometimes be repetitive, but who knew how to work a good climax). This re-recorded version reigns in the length slightly, cutting it down from six minutes plus to just over five, which means it doesn’t get as repetitive but the guys also don’t have quite as much time to “live within” the song and let it build up to the raw-throated climax that it was originally given. I mean, it still gets to that climax and the guys totally belt it out, and you’ve got the overlapping bridge and chorus thing happening that always manages to draw me in to otherwise “simple” worship songs. So I still love it.
4. Your Name (We Shout)
We weren’t quite done shouting and screaming God’s name from the mountains in that last track, so along comes another riff-heavy, but also extremely poppy, rock number that seems like it might be TDA’s own personal reflection on “Poor and Powerless”. “All the wounded will hurt no more/And all creation knocks at Your door”, that kind of stuff. Not terribly profound on its own, but it speaks of something profound that we Christians anticipate. I kind of don’t like to let worship songs get away with just alluding to stuff we’ve already heard about in much more powerful ways elsewhere, and just sort of riding the coattails of that emotion, so I can’t give the band full marks for this one, but they do manage to go the extra mile with it musically, turning what you expect to be a predictable ending after its final chorus into a nice victory lap when they just let the guitars loose and have a blast with it, not quite to the level of the DCB’s monolithic “God Almighty, None Compares”, but definitely in a similar spirit.
This would be the weepy piano ballad about God’s grace and love that seems to be tailor-made for someone to post a cheesy “lyric video” of it on YouTube with still images of sunsets and people raising their hands and stuff in the background, and using the wrong “Your” at every possible opportunity when trying to transcribe the lyrics. (Come on, go search for it and tell me this hasn’t already happened.) The funny thing is, TDA seems to be almost daring their audience to screw up the grammar, since they’ve got one of those choruses that is technically correct but that still sort of rubs me the wrong way: “By Your grace/Your love/Your peace/You’re enough.” My mind can slip a period or a semi-colon in there readily enough to ensure that the last line is a conclusion, rather than merely a fourth item in a list of God’s attributes, but I still cringe at the thought of some hapless churchgoer running the PowerPoint slides getting that one wrong. It may sound like I’m making fun of this song, but for what it is, it’s actually a fairly powerful composition – they know how to gradually build it up from reverent ballad to thundering anthem, which is helped by a rock solid melody throughout and some spot-on drumming once again. And is that a violin interlude I hear? I’m bummed that the DCB’s violinist and DJ Mike Hogan isn’t a full-time member of The Digital Age, but at least he did them a solid here. After the fantastic climax of this song, we get… a bit of a pointless ambient interlude. Sorry guys, but there’s a way to bridge songs together with a purpose, and then there’s just plain old meandering.
6. Through the Night
The album hits its apex right in the middle, with two songs on the more “electronic rock” side of the equation that bring back warm memories of Church Music. This one capably blends icy cool verses, dominated by somewhat scratchy sampled rhythms and a bit of guitar noodling, with another one of those pounding, live-band choruses that really sneaks up and grabs your attention. As with most of the record, the theme of this one is simple – “Through the night, You’ll hear us singing.” Music itself is a form of defiance against the darkness, and it might be a bit of a superficial claim if not for the raggedy shout that the vocals quite nearly escalate to in the intense bridge section. the Digital Age may not have anything all that deep to say, but they make it clear that they’ve got a passion for the music they’re creating and the One they seek to honor by creating it. (I’ll try to overlook the fact that, in the lyric sheet for this one, it says “Sing because we’re Your’s“. Ouch. Did they hire the guy who does the liner notes for Kutless or something?)
Hands down the most fun track on the album, and probably the one that does the best job of matching its music to its lyrics and to the overall theme of the album, is this fast-and-furious dance-rocker, which makes it sound like it could quite easily be integrated into the megamix that was Church Music, and no one would notice a missed beat. It got that same celebratory atmosphere as DCB tracks like “The Nearness”, “The Veil”, and “Can You Feel It?”, allowing dated but delightful synths to turn the song into a straight-up rave by the time the chorus comes around. You may cringe at the thought of grown men waving glowsticks for Jesus. but if there were actually a church service going on at 1 in the morning, I would hope it sounded more like this than your typical 10 AM Sunday morning fare.
8. Break Every Chain
Just when the album was at its strongest, it falls off of a startling cliff with a poorly-placed cover that makes it sound like the group went on complete auto-pilot. I don’t really know the origin of this one, but it sounds like the kind of thing you might hear from the Hillsongs camp, with its soothing, anthemic melody and its promise that “There is power in the Name of Jesus to break every chain, break every chain, break every chain!” I can imagine it going over decently well with a woman excitedly shouting to the crowd in an Aussie accent over the top of the choir belting it out behind her, the exuberant crowd serving as the “army rising up to break every chain” (and these lyrics are probably the worst when it comes to excited declarations with no details to back them up concerning what it all means), and everything stretching out to a very charismatic eight minutes or so. I’m not sure I would like that when there’s so little to the song behind it, but surely it would beat a mere two minutes and forty seconds of it, which is just short enough to make it sound like a commercial jingle for Jesus. Seriously, this is the kind of thing that might get stuck in my head if someone wanted me to call Jesus for all of my home appliance needs. I suppose it could serve as an interlude on an album more specifically dedicated to exploring the stories of people Jesus has set free, or at least on one more specifically themed around freedom from spiritual bondage and whatnot. As just a random selection on an album that’s most a genre exercise for its own sake, it comes across as a bit of a cheapshot.
There was a time at which it was a bit clever to take the Apostles’ Creed and set it to modern music. Rich Mullins did this beautifully, with just enough of an interlude of personal meditation on its meaning to help it stand out. TDA’s take, for all of its mid-tempo, post-rock, neo-liturgical leanings, doesn’t really recapture that same sense of wonder and devotion, particularly coming on the heels of such a cliched song before it. Sure, I like the mood that they orchestrate by slowly building it up from an introspective guitar melody and ambient keyboards and drums to a fuller, more rock-oriented refrain. But that’s sort of old hat for these guys at this point anyway – I find myself wanting more unique instrumentation or a break from the traditional phrasing of the lyrics or something to make this feel more like inspiration and less like regurgitation.
10. God of Us All
And now we’re back to the whole “worship workout” pace of things heard frequently on the front side of the album. Again, I’m making these snarky backhanded compliments, but it’s a credit to the band that they can keep coming up with these combinations of meaty riffs and peppy rhythms that I find genuinely engaging and that seem to try a little harder that the average worship band to put a little personality into the mix, rather than being a bland template for churches to mindlessly copy. This one does seem like a little more of a personal reflection on the statements of belief heard in the previous song, which sort of calls into question the need for that song when this one at least sums up the beliefs in their own words.
11. Always You
Taking a bit more of an abstract approach, with very few lyrics and the “big chorus” not coming in until the very end, is this graceful song with its simple metaphor of the sun coming up after a long night being a reminder of God’s glory renewing the Earth. On paper, it doesn’t look like much. Sonically, I enjoy the way that they bring this one from a peaceful pre-dawn to a reverent burst of color – it’s like one of the better climactic moments from a Future of Forestry album. it’s weird how even when TDA is doing something really beautiful like this , the nuts and bolts of it still seem so simple – that sometimes makes it difficult to explain why some of their songs are able to move me in the way this one does even though there’s nothing overtly profound about the way they were written.
12. Morning Song
Ah yes, the old “close a rocked-out album with a sensitive acoustic ballad trick. Heard it a million times. Surprising, then, that it works so well here. The chirping of birds fading out of “Always You” and heard continuously throughout this song helps – it reminds me of Olivia the Band pulling a similar trick in the otherwise simplistic “Missing”. Plus, the beautiful combination of crooning group vocals and deft finger-picking make this one a crystalline joy to listen to. It’s more about salvation that is felt rather than eloquently expressed, with the lyrics boiling down to very brief statements: “I, I can feel it/The Savior’s love/When the light breaks the day/All our sins are washed away.” There’s something compelling in the very basic combination of beautiful sounds, and it’s fitting for the end of an album that’s all about anticipating a new dawn – now that sun is shining bright and all is right with the world, and as few times as I ever get to see a sunrise (being the night owl that I am), this song represents pretty much exactly how I feel on the rare occasion that I do.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Symphony of Grace $1
All the Poor and Powerless $1.50
Your Name (We Shout) $1.25
Through the Night $1.75
Break Every Chain -$.50
God of Us All $1
Always You $1.25
Morning Song $1.50
Mike Dodson aka “Mike D”: Lead vocals, bass, piano, programming, keyboard, synthesizers
Jack Parker: Vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, programming, organ, banjo, synthesizers
Mark Waldrop aka “The Shark”: Vocals, electric guitar, programming, mandolin, synthesizers, percussion
Jeremy Bush aka “B-Wack”: Drums, percussion, bells, programming, synthesizers
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: