Sunday Service Choir - “Jesus Is Born” (INC ***)
When Kanye West finally released the much-delayed “Jesus Is King” in October, the uneven collection exasperated many and caused some to give up entirely on the megalomaniacal hip-hop auteur. But the turn to Christian rap did succeed in earning West plenty of what he seems to crave most: attention.
“Jesus Is Born” has been stealthier. It’s gotten far less notice because many nonbelievers have had it with Kanye the suddenly devout, a MAGA-hat-wearing scold whose sense of humor and self-awareness is no longer in evidence. Also, it came out on Christmas Day.
But with the New Year, West fans would do well to give “Jesus Is Born” a listen. Not because West has been suddenly reborn as a rapper. In fact, just the opposite: His voice is never heard throughout the 19 songs and more than 75 minutes. (The album is almost three times as long as its predecessor.)
If “Jesus Is King” surprised by not deviating from the gospel-rap path, “Jesus Is Born” goes a step further. It’s an undiluted gospel album that has a hip-hop sensibility only in the creative ways in which West the producer arranges and manipulates the voices of his massive Sunday Service Choir.
And the good news about “Jesus Is Born” is that he does so with flair. It contains new arrangements of older West songs such as “Ultralight Beam” and “Father Stretch My Hands” (with rap verses removed).
But mainly, it consists of gospel benchmarks like Shirley Caesar’s “Satan, We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down” dramatically brought to life. West shows the surprising good sense to keep himself offstage, and stay out of his own way, while showing that he still has the skills to enable others to shine. — Dan DeLuca
The Wood Brothers - “Kingdom in My Mind” (Honey Jar/Thirty Tigers ***)
The opening of “Kingdom in My Mind” is quintessential Wood Brothers. On “Alabaster,” guitarist Oliver Wood, bassist Chris Wood, and percussionist-keyboardist Jano Rix unfurl an insinuating, blues-inflected groove that draws you into the song’s elliptical narrative, which they punctuate with a lyrical hook that’s as seductive as the rhythm.
In other words, the trio continues to carve out its own niche with a blend of down-home rootsiness and uptown musical sophistication. Numerous strains are seamlessly woven into the songs: “Little Bit Sweet” contains elements of country-blues, the guitar-driven “Don’t Think About My Death” and tempo-shifting boogie “A Dream’s a Dream” veer closest to rock, while “Little Bit Broken” and “Little Blue” are the most prominent showcases for Chris Wood’s bass — reflecting his experience with the jazz-funk outfit Medeski, Martin, and Wood.
On “Satisfied,” Oliver Wood sings, “I got nothing left to be afraid of,” as the song builds into an almost gospel-like hymn. Except for a brief reprise of “Little Blue,” it closes another album in which the Wood Brothers manage to sound both coolly hip and warmly openhearted. — Nick Cristiano
The Innocence Mission - “See You Tomorrow” (Bella Union *** 1/2)
Lancaster’s Innocence Mission — the project of Karen and Don Peris, with bassist Mike Bitts — has been releasing albums of beautiful, dreamy songs since 1989. The lovely, understated “See You Tomorrow” is the 11th. The lyrics are full of natural elements — sun, stars, clouds, trees, fields — and they continually return to sharp observations that seek to capture and retain moments. “Notice the air is wondrous, with all the weather, the possible light, and the streets to reach. And you are here, and we have only arrived,” Karen Peris sings gently, atop a reverberating bed of piano chords in “Movie.” Her voice is wistful and introspective, with a soft edge that still recalls the Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler. Her husband’s fingerpicked acoustic guitar anchors tracks like the airy bossa nova “On Your Side” and the ebb-and-flow of “St. Francis and the Future.” That crystalline clarity allows the songs that feature more layered arrangements, such as the gorgeous closer “I Would Be There,” to blossom; it’s one of the few with drums here. “See You Tomorrow” is an album about, and full of, care, restraint, and love. — Steve Klinge
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