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Jim Black: ‘til then…
Sound/Style: light yet energetic pop/rock with a heart of devotion
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- Anyone who has seen the perennial Christmas classic Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer will recall how the nasally challenged reindeer and his pal Hermy, the would-be-dentist elf, are misfits in their respective communities. Even though they have something unique to offer, they aren’t initially given a chance by the powers-that-be because they don’t fit the mold. They conclude that the only way to live honestly is to go "inde-pen-dent," risking the dangers of the unknown path but retaining their integrity along the way. The comparison is an apt one for unsigned recording artists, many of whom give their inward motivations priority over the allure of a fame-obsessed culture. The entertainment industry’s emphasis on sales and trends (which is not limited to the secular world, incidentally) eliminates many artists who perhaps aren’t cut out for magazine covers and Grammy nominations but whose work is not without merit. And while it must be conceded that non-major label releases can vary vastly in quality, the independent scene allows fresh voices to poke through the music-biz glitz, reminding us that a "perfect-sounding" record doesn’t necessarily possess depth and substance. On his album ‘til then…, Jim Black makes a convincing argument for the benefits of a musical minor-league that doesn’t demand creative control or mega-star quality.
Black, a Florida pastor who surrendered his dreams of musical stardom, kept his love of music alive in a local studio. His goal was simply to encourage other Christians by sharing songs gleaned from his own relationship with his Creator. Despite the fact that the singer’s modest voice wouldn’t likely impress the infamous judge Simon on TV’s crass American Idol, there’s a direct connection between his heart and throat, and it comes across in his earnest, sincere delivery. Nashville guitarist and producer Michael Foster was, in fact, drawn to the sound of Black’s voice and his plainspoken but catchy compositions, and the musician proceeded to underwrite a CD project, exceeding Black’s understated ambitions. The production style is simple and direct, like Black himself, and boasts an immediacy typically airbrushed out of much mainstream Christian music. And if Black’s work isn’t always as artfully crafted as that of his major-label counterparts, it rings with the unmistakable mark of a man after God’s own heart.
The bright, relatively uncomplicated tone of songs like "Lead Me," "Love Rains Down" and "I Can Remember (The Underwear Song)" recalls the Top 40 pop of the early 70s. And don’t let the underwear reference disturb you – it comes in the form of a cozy domestic recollection of the singer playing Tarzan as a youngster in his tighty-whities. Black, the recipient of a happy and nurturing childhood, draws the connection between those innocent times and the faithful God who is a dutiful Father to the grown-up Black, whose adult responsibilities no longer allow for parading around in Fruit of the Looms. "Face To Face," which eagerly anticipates a heavenly rendezvous, combines Latin and jazz elements with a rocking guitar, resulting in one of the disc’s most rhythmically and sonically inviting tracks.
"Forever," a tender love song to Jesus from the perspective of an unnamed first-generation disciple, floats invitingly on a cloud of atmospheric keyboards, and the slight but touching "I Will Follow You" shows potential as a congregation-friendly worship tune. Black’s strongest suit is his songwriting, though his personable and vulnerable voice more than compensates in spirit what it lacks in finesse. If this album ever made it to the big leagues, it’s a good bet it would lose something personal in the translation. And this, in the end, is why we should cheer the availability of independently released records like ‘til then…, which scratches an itch that a heavily polished, big-budget production doesn’t always reach.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.