Prime Cuts: Emmanuel, Unto Us, We Have a Savior
As soon as we hear the moniker Hillsong two things come to mind. First, known for providing the songbooks for a large swath of churches today, many of would think of their bombastic hooky anthems such as "At the Cross," "Worthy is the Lamb" and "Hosanna." Second, they are known for their live worship recordings. However, their latest Christmas offering "We Have a Savior" certainly challenges such preconceptions. For starters, this is not a live recording. Rather, this is a studio recording from their individual lead singers. With half of the disc recorded last year under the EP title "Born is the King," the rest of the album has just been recently recorded. Moreover this CD is the step-daughter in their catalog of high-charged church anthems. Unlike their last festive release 2003's "Celebrating Christmas" which was a grand orchestral affair, this is a folky, country-tinged, understated and sometimes even eclectic effort. Nevertheless, not all is familiar is shun off: "We Have a Saviour" is still fronted by Hillsongs' most beloved lead singers including Darlene Zschech, Rueben Morgan, Brooke Ligertwood (Fraser) and more recent recruits such as Dave Ware and Matt Crocker.
The best among the 12 cuts are the originals: topping the list is Darlene Zschech's take of Rueben Morgan's "Emmanuel." A track that first appeared on their highly successful "God, He Reigns" album, this time around "Emmanuel" gets a softer treatment backed with folky sounding bells giving it a more festive feel. What makes this song soars is Hillsong's matriarch Darlene Zschech's patented voice and the way she injects faith in us as she croons, "So amazing/You have named the stars/Of the deepest night/Still You love me/You have called my name/I will follow You." Brooke Ligertwood (Fraser) makes a surprising appearance after being absent from Hillsong's recording of late with "Unto Us." Written by Rueben Morgan and Ben Glover, "Unto Us" is a brooding ballad in the veins of "His Glory Appears." Slow, meditative, saturated with Scriptural phrases, "Unto Us" is addictively worshipful. Sounding much more in line with their trademark worship style is Rueben Morgan's "We Have a Savior." Cushioned under some soft keyboards, a militant drum beat and building up to a worshipful chorus, this is standard Hillsong at its best.
Of the more propulsive worship burners Matt Crocker led "Born is the King" is most interesting. Encased in Scottish-esque country celebrative feel with its hand clapping sounding drums, "Born is the King" truly will make you want to party at Christmas. The last among the originals is 'Our King Has Come." Led by Dave Ware, this track sounds more like one of their copious album cuts without much to shout about. Other than Zschech and Ligertwood, the rest of the ladies don't seem to have much of a vocal identity and some even come across as weak. Annie Garratt, for instance, almost gets overwhelmed with the backing on "O Come Let Us Adore Him" while Jill McCloghry delivers a soporific sounding bluegrassy version of "Joy to the World."
Just like what they had done with "It is Well with My Soul" and "Cornerstone," Hillsong have brilliantly taken some of the best known traditional carols and tagged them with newly written material making them less archaic and fresher on younger ears. Most gorgeous is "The First Noel (Holy is the Lord)." But just like their albums of late, they have far too many lead singers making this sound like a compilation rather than a one church project. Without sounding like a broken record, Zschech, Ligertwood and Morgan should take more of a lead. Nevertheless, with a folkier/countrier approach,this CD definitely stands out in the sea of over-produced Christmas records. They are indeed to be congratulated for trying to something different.