Souled Out

God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on Today’s Pop Gospel

But nobody's got strength in numbers like the apparently limitless Winans Family. Rhino's The Very Best of allows us to catch up with '80s output from "the first family of gospel," who turn out to be lacking in both Christian charity and prophetic acumen—"The Real Meaning of Christmas" singles out Frosty for opprobrium, while 1981's "The Question Is" insists that "the crisis in Iran" is proof the Second Coming is nigh. (Woody Rock's cover of the latter song on Soul Music [Gospo Centric] wisely omits that assertion.) Tasteful, slick, and consistent, the Winanses' comp offers nothing to make anyone who fucks nuns later join the church. It does erase any doubt, though, that today's pop gospel is a livelier breed. Set the Winanses alongside Mary Mary's upcoming Incredible (Columbia, with a release date pushed back more often than the Jehovah's Witnesses' apocalypse), and you'll hear the difference between smug religious complacency and an active ministry. Even Shirley Murdock's Home (EMI Gospel/Dexterity), whose tracks, like her secular '80s r&b hits, bristle with mere adequacy, sounds more engaging than the Winans.

But r&b's ranks are already swollen with competence. Once, gospel had something to offer up, not just to Jesus but to nonbelievers—a sensibility, a set of styles, even a rhythmic pulse. Today's songs simply translate religious sentiments into contemporary settings —creating an alternate r&b world that nonetheless sounds almost exactly the same as the one on your radio. What's lacking is weirdos with pop pretensions like Thomas Dorsey or the Mighty Clouds of Joy, idiosyncratic performers who deliberately bent the music out of shape. As their followers attempted to bend it back, they inadvertently propelled the music forward.

Promising, if less familiar, rhythmic turf remains for gospel to explore. Junior Vasquez remixed Donald Lawrence and the Tri-City Singers' "Testify" into an unexpected 2001 club hit. Lawrence was on the P-Funk tip alongside Franklin back in the early '90s; his latest release, Go Get Your Life Back (EMI Gospel), is conventional pop gospel, leading off with the rousing "The Best Is Yet to Come," which unfortunately doesn't refer to the rest of the album. But "Testify" sounds at home on the dancefloor, and gospel-house seems like a natural. House has always been a secular religion anyway, one whose disciples adore impassioned wailing. EMI Gospel's Gospel Remixes, which looses producers like Vasquez and Farley Jackmaster Funk upon spiritual source material, indicates that, Moby be damned, there's a less folkloric dance/gospel synthesis waiting to be fulfilled.

The apparently limitless Winanses (four of them, anyway)
photo: Danny Clinch/Courtesy Quest/Warner Bros. Records
The apparently limitless Winanses (four of them, anyway)

The sacred crate-digging of Play, however, did not go unheard by gospel practitioners. On Spirit of the Century (Realworld), the venerable Blind Boys of Alabama dig into "Run On for a Long Time," one of the trad arr's that Moby rode off with into the future. The Blind Boys also reclaim two Tom Waits imitations of traditional spirituals, plus whiteboy faves like "Nobody's Fault but Mine" and "Motherless Child." So the most daring recent gospel album turns out to be the most musically traditional, reclaiming material that crafty rock skeptics had previously put to their own formalist use. I mean, would Kirk Franklin risk the Jagger lyric "Don't want to walk and talk about Jesus/I just want to see his face"?

But why stop there? My friend Peter Scholtes has always wanted to hear an r&b group cover XTC's antinomial "Dear God." Would the Blind Boys have the guts for that? With Tchad Blake twiddling the mix? Or how 'bout giving Puffy a ring? With these haggard elders on board, none durst judge the wily ol' plagiarist's heart. And if Diddy turns them down, the Blind Boys should swipe "I'll Be Missing You," sing it straight to Jesus instead of that other celebrated martyr, and demand that Sting's royalties go to the church of his choice. Talk about a big payback.

The Winans Family play Radio City Music Hall June 21.

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