Music Review


Phil Keaggy (Sings the Poetry of Keith Moore): It’s Personal

Label: Motorbike
Sound/Style: Sparsely arranged, reflective acoustic guitar music with vocals

By Steve Morley

(UMCom) -- There’s an honored maxim among musicians: "less is more." It rings truest for those who are capable of much but choose to restrain themselves to best enhance their music. A master practitioner of this discipline is guitarist Phil Keaggy. While his technical prowess allows for blinding speed, his capacity for melodic hooks and musical invention is seemingly endless. For a musician of his capabilities, perhaps the biggest challenge is to play less. Though this is something Keaggy does well, he’s taken "less is more" to a new extreme on his latest record, It’s Personal. Playing only acoustic guitar and singing music he’s composed to the words of poet Keith Moore, Keaggy turns in a memorable performance that harks back to 1994’s Way Back Home as well as his 1973 debut, What A Day. On those releases, he demonstrated his gift for setting poems to music. His interpretation of F.W. Pitt’s "Maker Of The Universe" remains one of the most stunning works to emerge from the contemporary Christian genre.

Here, Keaggy and Moore go for a particularly understated approach on collaborations that are a welcome tonic for sensory overload yet never make the eyelids heavy. It’s a bold move, not unlike stripping nearly naked in public, and not many could make it work as well as Keaggy has here. While longtime fans might miss his full-band arrangements and ringing tenor vocals, most will find the spacious, austere sound increases the enjoyment of each note, phrase and nuance once the ear has attuned itself. Also a welcome divergence on the album is Keaggy’s rare use of his lower vocal range.

Moore’s poems are least like orthodox song forms on the first several tracks, many of which freeze those little moments in life that are most fleeting and hard to recapture. "Smoke" isolates an intimate moment in prayer sealed into memory by a visible breath in the chilly morning air, while "Motorbike," over a gently finger-picked accompaniment, recounts a Sunday jaunt and a riding lesson with a loved one. The use of space is emphasized on "Simple," a cello-enhanced track that departs from predictable structure with one-word lines like "chalice…wine…bread…peace."

Much of the disc is well suited for worship or quiet contemplation, but even the CD’s more brisk numbers, like the bright and Beatlesque highlight "Lost In You," don’t tread heavily enough to disturb the mood. "Job" (that’s with a long "o") assumes a blues-like form but without the downer lyrics, focusing instead on God’s faithfulness in times of crisis. Throughout, Keaggy’s voice is comforting, and his melodies are light yet substantial. At a very listenable 38 minutes - the near-perfect length of a vinyl record - It’s Personal begs for a second hearing.

Steve Morley is a free-lance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.

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