Do you know what I mean when I say that a record sounds Christian? When the sonic makeup regardless of lyrical content, worshipful nature, and spiritual bent somehow sounds like its being played on a Christian radio station every time you hear it? Leeland’s debut album Sound of Melodies sounded Christian. Not inherently a bad thing, as there is a surprisingly good amount of music being played from a lot of Christian radio stations these days. Or at least a steady flow of catchy, well-produced pop-rock, comparative to the average secular station. The field truly is leveling, and any lack of originality or artistic vision, isn’t due to points of faith, but the nature of radio as a whole.
Sound Of Melodies was catchy (even if peppered with occasionally trite moments) worship music for Christians. A record that didn’t rewrite the playbook, but did offer unflinchingly solid pop song structure and sometimes thoughtful turns of lyrical phrase. And say what you will about their sometimes carbon-copy worship sound, but what the hell were you doing when you were 17? Writing pop melodies like a 20 year industry veteran? Dubious. Christian or secular, young or old, indie or major, selling 100,000 copies of your Grammy nominated debut album, before the state will let you chase down some shots in celebration, deserves a w00t or two.
“Count Me In,” the first single from this record, is for better or worse precisely what critical ears have been expecting. Bigger, edgier, almost catchy, 12% more homogenized, 37% more Coldplayed. It is the epitome of the follow-up single. Where are we going? BIGGER! How are we getting there? MATT BRONLEEWE! And even though the Christian super-producer does a commendable job thickening the drums, heavying the guitars, and epic-ifying the vocals, it still comes up short, feeling like little more than a singable page out of the sophomore playbook. Albeit sung with a truly incredible (even if sometimes annoyingly faux-British) voice.
The rest is a song-by-song give and take. Sifting through the note-for-note Rush of Parachute to the Head moments, such as the ridiculously Chris Martin-esque bridge in “Beginning And The End,” pays off with truly wonderful breaths of fresh air like “Brighter Days,” an Elton John-, Freddie Mercury-style moment worth its weight in mustaches and gold rimmed glasses. Call me shortsighted but I’d jump at the chance to defend the missteps of a Christian music industry whose worst sin was ripping off the likes of Elton John or Queen. We should be so lucky.
“Thief In The Night” flexes the Beatles influences they were most likely contractually obligated to develop, and the Keane influences they were most likely just recently told aren’t cool. Again, if critics swoon and cheer when artists like Derek Webb or Richard Swift evidently channel obvious influence after obvious influence, we can’t be too hard on a few scraggly starry-eyed teenagers and twenty-something Texans who find beautiful ways to package pretty good songs with not-bad results. Leeland is not paving new ground, not healing the sick and raising the dead. They are not Coldplay, the are not U2, they are not Radiohead. But they’re good. Maybe not great yet, but good. They know who they are and are self aware without taking themselves way too seriously. They didn’t get the memo about irony being the new sincerity, and even though they don’t take a single risk for the duration of the record, they almost convince you that while risks may come and go, good melodies and harmonies last forever.
Maybe my heartfelt desire to root for Leeland comes less from any blindingly brilliant originality, and more from the fact that at least kids are being forced to remember that there are other ways to praise the Lord, outside of painfully-trendy uber-stale mass-marketed-Big Brother-Australian worship supergroups.
What it all comes down to is just this; if their first record rallied the troops so to speak, their second offering goes paratrooping into the foreign land of secular radio, MTV, stadium rock, and Switchfoot-Anberlin-Mercy Me-style crossover success. Whether or not that should be the goal of “modern worship” is a point of debate I suppose. Perhaps the WWJD craze wasn’t so bad, when nowadays every band this side of the secular goes into the studio asking What Would Coldplay Do?
Jordan Kurtz is a writer, musician, and radio host living in Canada.
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