Monday, October 8, 2012

Get 'Em While They're Young: Christian Quasi-Rock From Over The Pond

The Good: Exceptional voice, Good use of Instruments
The Bad: Musically bland, Some terrible lyrics, Aspects of propaganda
The Basics: Marketed as one of new Classical's rising stars, Pure has much to offer the Christian vocal scene, little to appeal to the more mass market.

I recall, when listening to the disc in my player now, an incident from my youth. I was at the church youth group listening to the Associate talking about cults. She was an expert in cults, having been part of deprogrammings and when I say "expert," I mean it to the most literal truth. She knew all about cults, their methods and their influence. So, she was pretty irked when I asked, "What's the difference between here and a cult?" She tersely responded, "Cults manipulate you and force you to stay." The nods of my peers cut off when I replied, "My father forces me to come every weekend. He made it clear that if I want to live under his roof, I have to attend church every Sunday with him." The Associate bit her lip and glowered at me. In my Junior year of high school, I moved out and once freed of the influence of the Church, I did not start looting gas stations or shooting hoboes or turn to drugs or alcohol. All that truly changed was my ulcer went away, I had more free time on Sunday mornings, and there were years I did not see or speak to my father.

I recall this because, while there is no overt connection to the Christian Rock/vocal music scene to Hayley Westenra, Westenra's neo-Classical album Pure is loaded with appeal for the movement. From the title, Pure, a quick perusal of the track list finds "Heaven," "Benedictus," and the obligatory rendition of "Amazing Grace." Intentional or not, Hayley Westenra continues a long tradition of marketing Christianity to the young. It's hard to believe it is not intentional when listening to this very safe, family friendly album that the intent was not to market it as part of the whole trend toward popularizing Christian rock in the mainstream.

So, what is Pure? Westenra's label debut is a vocal album with occasional light pop overtones. But most of it is church music. Classical. The Christians have always been pretty great with music, one must credit them for that. Think of how catchy Christmas carols are. You can walk down the streets around the holidays and see all sorts of people humming them. Pure is a bit more traditional, with various tracks sounding like hymns, like "Benedictus," "Hine o Hine," and "In Trutina."

In the end, the genre does not matter. So if the new Classical movement is simply borrowing old hymns and packaging them with young women who look more like Vanessa Carlton than Britney Spears, the end result it unimportant. The question of Pure is is it a quality album? Is it worth the buy? My answer is no, at least to the latter.

Westenra's sound is essentially her voice. Truth be told, her sound is amazing. She has a killer beautiful voice. There is no arguing with that. Her voice is perfect-pitched soprano and she seems to have impressive range, as evidenced on the standard "Amazing Grace." Her vocal talents are undeniable and it is easy to see why Decca picked her up. Choirs might be where most talent comes from for "American Idol;" though Westenra's from New Zealand, the principle holds.

Westenra's voice is supplemented by an orchestra and, at times, a choir. On "Benedictus," the orchestra drowns her out with a force that is overbearing. For the most part, though, the music is more subtle. It's always refreshing to hear music that has more than three instruments and the instrumentals backing Westenra are at the very least listenable. Some of the music backing Westenra is flat-out classical, like "River of Dreams," which includes music by Vivaldi. She is accompanied with strings - violins, cellos, etc. - and piano on most tracks.

Where the music goes horrible wrong is on "Hine e Hine." There is a guest vocalist on the track and honestly, it sounds like Michael Palin on the Monty Python song, "Decomposing Composers." Palin mumbles through that track and it's hilarious. The guest vocalist on "Hine e Hine" is kind of freaky with such a similar sound. It definitely detracts from the track.

It ought to be noted that on Pure, Westenra does not write any of her own material. This leads to varying degrees of quality. The tracks range from the obvious rhymes, like "Who painted the moon black? / Just when you passed your love back?" on "Who Painted The Moon Black?" to poetry that has the literary quality of a preteen's notebook. The plaintive lines of "Across the Universe of Time," have this feeling with lines like "Cold, cold wind, it blows me away / The feeling all over is a black black day / But I know that I'll see you again / And I know that you're near me." The album climaxes on a Kate Bush rewrite of "Wuthering Heights," which is the best track on Pure.

My last note on Pure as a function of Christian art, it's germane to note that both Christian rock/vocals and its antithesis in darker rock, utilize the same symbols. "Dark" is always assumed bad, like on "Dark Waltz" on Pure. Being this type of album, though, "Dark Waltz," naturally ends on the note of the desire to turn toward the light (i.e. turning back to god). Using metaphors like this, along with the concept that togetherness is the ideal - Christian music is very much terrified of the single person - solidify Pure as a tool of the movement.

I found I enjoyed Maria Mena's debut more than this. At least White Turned Blue (reviewed here!) had some real angst and tracks with some complexity. This is spiritual, family-oriented, but ultimately interchangeably sugary, generic for the sound of pretty much all vocal neo-Classical rising stars. At least Hayley Westenra has an amazing voice, so we can see why she was able to get an album produced.

The best track is "Wuthering Heights," the low point is the disturbing "Hine e Hine."

For other Christian music album reviews, be sure to check out:
Flyleaf - Flyleaf
Addison Road - Addison Road
No Name Face - Lifehouse


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing.

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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