Anyone who read my review of In a Different Light already knows that Avalon is a bit of an anomaly in my CD collection, which is mostly alternative and modern rock. Sometimes, I’m a sucker for a well-executed pop song. Sometimes, Avalon’s very straightforward and simple lyrics speak to me and pick me up out of a funk, like the hit single “The Greatest Story” from their first album did for me four years ago. They’ve had a special place in my heart ever since then, even though they don’t write their own songs (for the most part) and are often lumped together with the rest of Christian music’s pretty faces who deliver easy-to-digest ear candy mainly designed to encourage other Christians. This means that while I’m busy bashing other Christian pop groups like Plus One, I’m generally willing to give Avalon a fair chance. And I was excited when I found a Napster user who had all of the tracks from the group’s new album, Oxygen, a good month before the album came out.
Well, if you read my other review, you know the story that follows. I encountered Avalon member Cherie Paliotta on Napster and chatted with her for a bit. She wanted to know if I liked the album. Having only listened to it once, it was hard to say much other than to pick out a song or two that had caught my attention. Now it’s been a month, and the album has finally reached store shelves. I’ve listened to Oxygen many more times since then, and though a few more songs have grown on me, I’m still a bit perturbed by Avalon’s new approach. They’ve always been a shiny, happy pop group, known for a good balance between hot dance grooves and powerful ballads, and you’ll find both on this project. But they’ve adopted some of the latest craze known as “teen pop” to drive the sound of this record, and as a result, the hot dance tracks are a little harder for me to swallow, and there’s more in-between-tempo-type songs that don’t do as much for me. Maybe my personal bias has finally decided to stop making an exception for Avalon… and yet, I still listen to this album a great deal. What gives?
If we were living with the passion, what would be the reaction? I know a single heart can change the world.
This song gets things off to a decent start, with a nice little countdown that gives way to some cool synthesized sounds and a little Spanish-sounding percussion and so forth. You’d think this would be a great track with those diverse elements all in the first few seconds, but from there, it develops into more of a typical Avalon dance track, something that would have been right at home on A Maze of Grace. Lyrically, the song focuses on the same concept as the Newsboys’ “Shine” with more standard lyrics, asserting that if love is seen by the outside world as the trademark of the Christian life, more of them will want to know who Jesus is.
The Best Thing
I hear your voice, I run to the sound, it’s like I’m flying with my feet on the ground…
Here’s where the teen pop elements begin to seep in. Overall, this catchy little number remains upbeat and highly enjoyable, with a great melody and a nice piano line to complement the array of synthesized sounds that drive much of Avalon’s music. However, the producers slipped a few cheesy keyboard hits in here and there in an almost underhanded manner, as if hoping not everyone would notice them. That and the mostly male lead vocals add an uneasy boy-band feel to this song, creating a middle ground between adult pop and teen pop that isn’t too far from something Raze would have come up with. Scanning the lyrics (which adequately describe the new found joy of becoming a Christian), it’s no surprise that they were written by the duo of Mark Pennels and Zarc Porter, two key members of the Christian dance group World Wide Message Tribe (the group that essentially put Raze together).
By Heart, by Soul
If you were a song, I’d sing along ‘til I knew every word and every note…
Hello, Mr. Ballad. We’ve been expecting you. Avalon teams up with Aaron Neville for this one – not that Avalon needs a fifth voice, but his presence here is welcome, and it was only fitting since they sang backup for the same song on Neville’s recent Gospel album. I’m not really used to Neville’s voice – but he sounds just golden when he breaks through the other voices here and there, very nicely trading off lines with the others instead of dominating the song, even if the overall effect is highly sappy. The song puts the desire to know God intimately, to practically memorize God like a familiar road or a song, up against an R&B/slow jam sort of beat, which works until they get to some not-so-well chosen lines such as “You are everything to me/My A to Z”. I have to give them credit for at least recording the song over again instead of recycling the same version from Neville’s album, but this isn’t one of my favorites.
Like finding a match when the lights have gone out/Like finding a raft when the ship is going down…
Once again, we have the same problem as we did in “Wonder Why” – the song starts off with some interesting, Asian-inflected notes, but drops that motif in favor of straight ahead dance-pop. The tempo to this one is more middle of the road, so it’s not all that energetic, but the verses contain some decent metaphors that once again describe the miracle of finding God. I think Cherie Paliotta leads on this one, and she does a decent job (I really like how the song suddenly ends on her echoing voice), but it’s not enough to make this song an Avalon classic.
I Don’t Wanna Go
I don’t wanna walk that road, be a million miles from home, ‘cause my heart needs to be where You are…
A song of unwavering devotion to God; a barn-burner of an inspirational ballad. At least, I guess it’ll become that. A few fans have already cited this as the album’s standout song. I don’t know; I’m kind of frustrated at this point because the pace has so noticeably slowed down after track 2. This one starts off a bit sleepy with syrupy synthesizers, and the percussion and all that joins in eventually, placing the focus mostly on Janna Long’s lead vocal. I think they’re trying to recreate the magic of the crossover hit “Can’t Live a Day” here, but it’s hard to tell. I do like how the other voices join in with a slight Gospel feel somewhere around the bridge, and some very busy strings give the song a little more substance. The song is still a bit trite at that point, but it’s kind of like the difference between a low-budget cheesy romantic movie and a blockbuster cheesy romantic movie.
Never Givin’ Up
Through your silence and your tears, you have always been a child of mine…
This one has a slightly more interesting beat, even if it tries rather awkwardly to be funky at first with the odd synth effects that drive the verses. There’s a little more syncopation going on here, plus some real drums to back up the programming, and a little electric guitar funk to make the song more fun. Lyrically, this one’s rather refreshing, as it takes the point of view of God, who calmly addressing the pain and suffering a Christian is facing, assuring them that none of it can separate the person from God’s love. We’ve all heard it, and yet we need to keep hearing it. That’s probably what saves the song in the end. I like the vocal exchange at the end where the members are singing bits and pieces of the song, overlapping each other.
Make It Last Forever
It’s like adrenaline running through you, it can make your heartbeat jump right off the track…
Depending on your mood, this song is either a total blast, or totally scary. If “The Best Thing” was a half-handed attempt at slipping some teen pop influence into Avalon’s more sophisticated dance pop, then this song is an unabashed attempt at being a teenager again. They’ve got the sound down pat – even if teen pop’s not my style, this thing has a heck of a fast groove to it, and it’s got enough edge (thanks again to a little bit of real guitar playing) to keep me from complaining about the obvious attempt at roping in all the boy-band fans. Heck, Michael Passons and Jody McBrayer’s vocals during the verses even do a great job of emulating that slightly raspy but still sweet quality of certain members of N*Sync and the Backstreet Boys. What scares me about this song is the metaphor that they use for God. I mean, what’s a casual listener supposed to make of “Do you want to fly/There’s a higher high/Just this side of Heaven” other than a drug reference? Obviously that whole analogy is nothing knew (just look at Carman’s “Addicted to Jesus”, Anointed’s “Under the Influence”, or even dc Talk’s “Like It, Love It, Need It”, to hit Christian rock fans closer to home), and sometimes it works as a statement that God is much more fulfilling than the temporary high provided by physical things. But I don’t know how I feel about God being represented as the ultimate adrenaline fix. Oh, well. Still a standout track and understandably, a hit single.
All of Heaven kissed the face of the Earth/With a miracle of love, God became a man/But He was sent away to draw His final breath when He was only 33…
Now this is classic inspirational music right here, except interestingly a bit de-synthesized. It’s like Avalon took a classic like Sandi Patty’s “Via Dolorosa” and translated it into emotionally-charged modern pop, keeping the slow and reverent feel of classic Christian pop, but beefing up the sound with some very noticeable drums that make the chorus to this song almost rock. The whole structure of the song briefly describes the life of Christ and the things He came to Earth to accomplish, with the chorus focusing on the blood and body of Communion, making the timing of the song’s release as the album’s first single absolutely perfect (right around Easter). Traditional Avalon in one sense, and refreshingly different in another, this is my vote for the standout track on the album. Much more than the touch-and-go teen pop sound of much of this album, this is a song that will likely stand the test of time and be remembered alongside Avalon classics such as “Adonai”, “Testify to Love”, and “In Not Of”.
I speak each word as if it is Your name/I move my lips, I see the whisper stir the gentle flame…
As “The Glory” fades out on the sound of wind chimes, this song bleeds in with a very organic vibe to it, making it rather unlike anything Avalon has recorded. Acoustic guitars are noticeable here, and the electronic effects, while still present, are definitely scaled back, content to touch up the mood of the song without dominating it. The overall feel is similar to the title cut from Jaci Velasquez’s Crystal Clear album – a well-executed marriage of the spiritual and the sensual. Pardon the pun, but there’s something very “breathy” about this song. The source is a bit unexpected, coming from the pen of Richard Page (formerly of the 80’s group Mr. Mister). A few lyrics were changed to translate Page’s love song into more of a personal worship experience, and some may praise that while others frown upon it, but Page did sanction the alteration (I’ve heard his original demo, and it’s not too different). The imagery of lovers (whether human or supernatural) breathing each other in and out is wonderful, if not the most original idea in the world. I like that the verses take opposite vantage points – “I take each breath as if it is my first/last”. An odd song for Avalon, maybe not as catchy at first as their last acoustic venture (“Always Have, Always Will” from In a Different Light), but ultimately, a satisfying deviation from the norm.
My soul will always be with you, my eyes will always be on you/Through it all I see You stay the same…
I hate to say it, but this is the sort of mid-tempo filler song that plagued the group’s first album so much. It’s not a bad song – it just doesn’t stand out much among the others. It’s got that gentle, breezy, finger-snapping vibe that seems to be the formula for a mid-tempo boy-band hit. As a matter of fact, it’s not much of a stretch from this song to “I Want It That Way” or “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You”. Truth is, I actually like both of those songs, despite my hatred for boy bands. But I digress. It’s a mostly male-led tune about the unchanging nature of God, and it’s positioned well as a bridge between the title cut and the final song. But once again, not a classic.
Come and Fill My Heart
Because from here the climb is steep, the road is long…
I didn’t realize it at first, but this the strongest ending Avalon’s got to any of their albums. When I heard the opening keyboard notes to this one, I couldn’t get the very similar opening to “Can’t Live a Day” out of my head, and I’d already thought another track on this record was trying to recreate that song’s hit status. So I kind of looked over this one as the requisite closing ballad. Turns out it’s a powerful song, probably as deep and emotional as Avalon’s songs get. It ties up the album’s theme nicely (“I need You like the air that I breathe”) and acknowledges that our humanity gets in the way of our pursuit of the supernatural (“Empty me of all the empty things that I hold on to”) as it calls out to God for fulfillment and the strength to make it through life. The line I quoted above is probably the thing about this song that sticks out in my head most, simply due to its acknowledgement that the Christian life ain’t gonna get easier, but God will always be there. Yeah, it’s still a fairly standard inspirational ballad, and it should burn up the charts if given the chance, but it’s honest, and that’s what makes it work.
Beyond the Clouds
This was an extremely cheesy, beat-driven teenybopper track that was included as track 12 on early versions of the album. Needless to say, I can see why it didn't make the final cut, and it's really jarring after the ballads that close out the album. I would advise going out of your way to get the version without this track if you're gonna by the album.
Interestingly, this album ends stronger than it began. My favorite tracks are all in the back half of the album, and the slower nature of pretty much everything after “Make It Last Forever” is a bit refreshing. The attempts at aping the popular sound of the day are somewhat amusing, but also embarrassing at times (okay, I do find myself humming “The Best Thing” quite a bit lately, and it is a standout track). Let’s just say that while I recommend this album for Avalon fans or anyone who likes the glossier side of Christian pop music, and while I plan on buying it (mostly because I downloaded it and I listen to it so much, and there’s supposed to be an extra track on the first iteration of its release), I don’t plan on playing it for many of my friends. They’ll give me weird looks, and all my arguments about the superiority of modern rock to modern pop will be shot to hell. Heck, maybe they already are.
So, I’ll just sneak around singing the words to “Make It Last Forever” and hope no one notices…
TRACK REVIEW SUMMARY
Excellent: Oxygen, Make It Last Forever, The Glory, Come and Fill My Heart
Good: Wonder Why, The Best Thing
Decent: By Heart By Soul, I Don't Wanna Go, Never Givin' Up
Weak: Undeniably You, Love Remains
Skippable: Beyond the Clouds
Website : http://www.avalonlive.com