“If this world is a lonely place for you, fall into the arms of love.”
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I’ve always seen Jaci Velasquez as the Jennifer Lopez of Christian music. Beautiful, Latino, and hyped, Jaci just seemed like the perpetual poster girl for CCM. And it’s true, her latest albums are a bit, I don’t know, normal? But I was wrong to pass up Heavenly Place for so long. It has a collection of both wonderful and boring music that is sure to give you a clear idea of what “Christian pop” is like.
At the Gospel Music Assocation’s Dove Awards, Jaci Velasquez won 1997 New Artist of the Year and 1999 AND 2000 Female Vocalist of the Year. At this point, I was convinced she was the female equivalent of Steven Curtis Chapman, stealing every single award every single year. She was unprecedently successful from the start, and this was in an industry that had practically no ethnic performers.
Jaci was sixteen years old when she put out her first album, Heavenly Place. Unlike a number of teenage singers, her voice sounds incredibly strong and developed. In fact, it’s so strong that she can sound almost strident at times. She has no vibrato whatsoever, at least on this album, so pay attention if you like smooth, powerful, but non-reverberating singers. Her range on Heavenly Place is somewhat limited – you can hear her cheating on the high notes of several songs. However, I respect artists who know their limitations and work in the area that they’re skilled in. Jaci’s voice is a pleasure to listen to most of the time, and her vigorous singing fits today’s vocal norms very well. She doesn’t have even a trace of an accent, and although it doesn’t make a difference to me one way or the other, it DOES mean that her words is clearer and more easy to understand.
You know that I have no patience with these oh-so-adorable and oh-so-talented teeny-boppers who are gone once they hit twenty. (Just watch little miss Britney.) But Jaci is now twenty-one, and she’s proved herself more than a hit-of-the-moment teenage artist. Heavenly Place doesn’t suffer from her youthfulness as a singer, and I intend to critique the album exactly the same as if she was any other age.
Released in October 1996, Heavenly Place was, according to the website www.jacivelasquez.com, the fastest-selling solo debut in the history of Christian music. It’s sold more than a million copies and is still one of the most popular Christian albums. There are 10 tracks that included in the playlist, and Heavenly Place was published by Myrrh records. (Unfortunately, since my copy of this album is bootleg, I haven’t the faintest idea who the producer was.)
I’m afraid I had some skewed expectations when I popped Heavenly Place into my CD player. I thought this album would be mediocre and disappointing through and through. However, there are some incredible songs here, some pretty good songs, and a few clunkers. Doesn’t that sound like most CDs? I also expected a less well-rounded performance from Jaci, because of her age and unmatured voice. But there’s very little difference between her singing abilities on Heavenly Place and later albums. A third reason I discredited this CD was that the one Jaci V. album I had tried, her self-titled record, was very disappointing. The last prejudice I held, and I still have it in fact, is that songs written by the performers are more genuine, more creative, and more suited to the artist’s style. And Jaci doesn’t write ANY songs on this album! Yet that doesn’t prevent her from belting some super tunes.
She’s less adventurous with her Latino touches on Heavenly Place than she has been recently. Her cultural influences show up primarily through Spanish guitars (in the background of course) and occasionally a Latin-sounding melody (that’s still “north of the border” as they say). For the most part, this album is quite simply pop, with a tiny bit of jazz and classical influence. What a combo!
One complaint that I do have with Miss Velasquez and her music, and probably always will, is that it’s just so normal. Even the hit songs on this album are noticeably mainstream. That’s why she’s such a superstar in the Christian music industry, I guess. Her music defines “pop” to the uttermost; whether they’re bouncy, upbeat fast songs, or leisurely, ballady slow songs, the tracks on Heavenly Place always stay safely in the pop arena. The pretty good songs I mentioned are more than okay – they’re good songs; but they simply don’t hold a candle to inspired, creative “pop” such as Nichole Nordeman or Rebecca St. James.
The lyrics on this album were written by a hodgepodge of different songwriters, yet they all sound fairly alike in style and creativity. In general, Heavenly Place’s lyrics are neither horrible nor exceptional; they’re just good. (ELABORATE! you’re screaming. HOW ARE THEY GOOD?) They express the thoughts and messages of the songs in an adequate way that often is meaningful enough to touch the listeners. They’re even poetic from time to time. But often, too, the words settle for somewhat ordinary phrases and rhymes, where fresh imagery and vivid descriptions could have been used. This fault can be forgiven since the messages are unashamedly God-oriented and inspiring. A few songs – most noticeably If This World and On My Knees – have incredibly moving themes of seeking refuge and answers in God. Other ideas explored in Jaci’s songs include glimpsing heaven, peer pressure (indirectly), evangelism, purity, and seizing the moment. Undeniably Jaci V. is a model of positive messages and uplifting content.
If This World is a great way to start out this album, a flavorful, rhythmic track carried along by a familiar but unique melody line. Listen closely and you can hear a xylophone synthesizer effect and guitar strummings that are buried most of the time by the jazz organ and “world drums.” Jaci’s “nah nah nahs” throughout the song aren’t as obtrusive as “nah nahs” usually are, and overall she gives a laudable vocal performance. This was the song that intrigued me first about the album, because of both its catchy music and its theme, turning to God instead of to the world for love and acceptance.
Un Lugar Celestial (A Heavenly Place) shows Jaci’s Latin roots, not only in the Spanish title but in the music and orchestration. Nonetheless, you shouldn’t expect a full-fledged, energetic Latino track here; this song is a controlled, essentially pop piece with some suspiciously un-poplike guitars that sound like mandolins. In fact, it’s so controlled that the song is almost unemotional, and the distant “heavenly” themes explored in the lyrics don’t add much emotion. However, the words are more poetic than I’ve come to expect of Jaci: “I dream of beauty I have never seen/I know the arms of heaven wait for me/And yet I feel its sweetness here and now/In this life on earth.”
Flower in the Rain is the first disappointment I encounter on this album, though I had heard this song before and so was fully prepared. A plodding, uninspired beat coupled with a hackneyed, muted melody is disappointing enough; but add to that a meaningless title that doesn’t fit with the rest of the chorus, plus overused analogies to water and wandering, unfocused thoughts in the lyrics, and you’ve got a much worse song than Christian music would like you to believe Jaci V. could produce.
On My Knees may be overplayed, but it’s still the highlight of Heavenly Place! This soaring, tenderly beautiful song deserves the Dove Award it got for 1998 Song of the Year. It starts out with a gentle piano interlude and soft orchestra in the verse, and builds up to a expansive chorus of powerful strings and compelling vocals. The pianissimo bridge, remarkable orchestrations, and superb dynamics would be enough to recommend it; but the touching lyrics are so peaceful and soothing, with their message of the hope and wonder found in prayer, that this song could very well be one of the most powerful and influential songs in Christian music!
Shelter is a beboppy pop song full of jazzy chords and traditional jazz instruments – organ, saxophone (albeit muted), and that distinctive synthesizer guitar. I found the lyrics and message just a little too ordinary, the same old ideas of being sheltered by God. Okay, Jaci, I know you probably don’t have control over the songs picked, but the repetitive “Shelter me” choruses and tattered jazz melody don’t do a thing for this album!
Baptize Me continues the verb theme. ;-) Beginning with a soft synthesizer intro, it soon reveals itself as a pulsating pop song with a Newsboys-like verse and an Avalon-esque chorus. The music is infectiously energetic, and I can’t help humming along with the spirited melody. Like her subsequent hit song God So Loved, this track has a bridge where Jaci mutters something nice and dogmatic. Doctrine aside, Baptize Me is a general prayer of repentence and “baptism” into God’s grace. There’s something appealing in how simple the message is – it doesn’t even try to be unique, so it works!
We Can Make a Difference, by itself, isn’t that bad, but it’s been SO overplayed that it’s one of those “groaners” – you hear the first bars of it and groan. It has a bubbly, lighthearted, upbeat melody and a cheerful, upbeat rhythm and an encouraging, guess what – upbeat, that’s right! – message, about having an impact on our world. It’s just such a happy song that even a few times through will make you sick of it.
My Promise is a gentle guitar-driven prayer that pledges purity and devotion. Since this is obviously a personal promise from Jaci herself, the song manages to escape the insipid moralism and preachiness that most “purity” songs fall into. Don’t get me wrong; I am absolutely in favor of abstinence and integrity, and I would love to see more songs promoting it in a fresh and approachable way. So although My Promise is a short and rather humble track, it’s also a genuine and emotional piece that impacts its listeners because it doesn’t try to guilt-trip them into anything. The melody reminds me of “Little Boy On His Knees” by Cindy Morgan, recreating its soft, intimate, homey feel. It’s not a stand-out track, yet it is a lovely song in an unassuming way.
We Will Overcome sounds like a cross between Cindy Morgan (again!) with her worn major-seventh piano songs, and Amy Grant, with her blandly classic Christian music. Cindy Morgan may be all right at times, but Amy Grant is not someone I respect very much, either personally or musically, so I definitely skip Overcome. Trudging, unappealing melody; ordinary feel-good message about discouragement and overcoming it; and music that has a mediocre 80s feel. Hello!
Thief of Always really surprised me, coming after the last song. Always is a lovely ode recommending “living every moment as though it was your last” and so forth. Like My Promise, this song is a tender, understated piece that isn’t very conspicuous as either a pop song, a ballad, or an indescribable “beautiful song.” It has a slow, unengaging beat that’s contrasted by very pretty background accompaniement. The verses are remarkably lyrical, if a bit flowery in their description of changing seasons: Before the trees have shed their autumn gold/To leave the barest bark/The frost beneath our feet will sparkle bright/With crystals under the sky.. Certainly nothing that hasn’t been done before, but the music is enjoyable and the imagery is great, therefore the song is an excellent way to end this album.
It isn’t one of the greatest Christian albums ever, but Heavenly Place holds its own, and the majority of songs are better than average. If you’re in the market for traditional Christian pop with just a taste of Latin and sweeping strings, this would be a good way to get introduced to Jaci Velasquez.
If you enjoy the Latin influences on this album, you should check out Jaci’s two Spanish albums, Llegar a Ti and Mi Corazon. (Do NOT ask me what those titles mean!) You may also be interested in several other excellent Latin records: the brand new artist Freddie Colloca with Dance El Ritmo; Salvador’s self-titled album; and Burlap to Cashmere’s debut Anybody Out There?.
Favorite songs: If This World, On My Knees, Baptize Me
Least favorite songs: Flower in the Rain, We Can Make a Difference, We Will Overcome.
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