We gave it a C
Just about everywhere you gaze, the look and sound of gospel — if not the message — are being fetishized. On TV, robed African-American choirs sing the praises of cars and colas. ”Gospel brunches” at the House of Blues offer the church experience sans the superfluous preaching, Bible reading, prayer, and stuff. R&B power ballads hardly seem complete without a choir kicking in, deus ex machina, at the key change. The phenomenon reached a weird apotheosis with R. Kelly’s ”I Believe I Can Fly,” that moving hymn about the deep-rooted urge in all of us to shoot hoops with the Tazmanian Devil.
Gospel and cartoons meet again in the biblical epic The Prince of Egypt, with three new albums under that banner. At least here it’s Moses and his Boss, not Bugs, being venerated, although it could just as easily have been Chopra’s seven spiritual laws as the Ten Commandments inspiring Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston to warble through the hilariously nonsectarian ”When You Believe,” or Vince Gill’s god-awful ”Once in Awhile” (”Don’t you ever stop believing/Believing in the truth/You might think that dreams don’t come true/But every once in a while they do” — theologians, take note).
The good news is that most contributors aren’t so eager to turn God into oatmeal. He’s obviously all over the disc subtitled Inspirational, which rounds up every big black-gospel name you could think of, then shoehorns in a handful of Christian pop superstars, to riff on that O.T. (Old Testament) religion. Among the minority Caucasian camp, Jars of Clay, doing their best Michael Penn impression, are odd Quarrymen out. And Carman, the inexplicably popular showman who never met a genre he couldn’t appropriate — badly — for Jesus, has the chutzpah to go for an Israeli-rock thing. It’s not his worst moment, but you’re clearly better off in the capable hands of Fred Hammond & Radical for Christ, who celebrate those Red Sea drownings with some old-school funk, or the faithful hip-hop of Trin-i-tee 5:7, Christian music’s En Vogue.
The Nashville disc gets a dispiriting start with Wynonna’s ”Freedom,” in which Judd literally growls her way through every other banal line. (Did she think Prince of Egypt was the story of Tony the Tiger?) At least Faith Hill’s cover of Amy Grant’s ”Somewhere Down the Road” is vague in a deliberate Christian-agnostic way. It’s not accidental that the best numbers echo the Moses story — particularly Alison Krauss’ tender ”I Give You to His Heart” and Beth Nielsen Chapman’s gorgeous ”Godspeed,” both aching with the bittersweet love of a mother setting a son adrift, part of the narrative that resonates with female singers across all three CDs.
That leaves the soundtrack itself, and after hearing Stephen (Godspell) Schwartz’s song score in all its joyless pomposity, you’ll understand why DreamWorks camouflaged it with two genre collections. The pic’s good guys just wanna be freeee, and reverence won’t allow the Pharaoh-loving baddies (Steve Martin and Martin Short) any saving Disney-esque wit. ”Believe” is the operative word, but no amount of positive thinking can make Schwartz’s quasi-religious show tunes — or Babyface’s dueling-divas interpretation of the main theme — fly. Soundtrack: C; Inspirational: B+; Nashville: B-