Two new CDs spread the gospel, with mixed results. The Blind Boys are heavenly, but Lord knows Al Green's done better

By Tom Sinclair
March 14, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

Two new CDs spread the gospel, with mixed results

It was Ray Charles who came up with the once-scandalous notion of merging the blues with gospel, creating a formula for goodtime music that hordes of artists have since taken and run with. Odd, then, that gospel — at least, the real undiluted, sanctified stuff — gets so little respect. Even if its sound is all over the pop charts, most people would rather hear its cadences praising a lover than the Lord.

Let’s hope folks make an exception where the Blind Boys of Alabama are concerned. The group’s Atom Bomb comprises the sort of rousingly God-centric songs even heathens can bow down to. The Grammy winners (they were honored for 2004’s There Will Be a Light, their way-cool collaboration with Ben Harper) are joined here by the likes of organist Billy Preston and Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo on inspired covers of Norman Greenbaum’s ”Spirit in the Sky” (yes!) and Blind Faith’s ”Presence of the Lord.” The vibe isn’t far removed from the funky frathouse spirit of a vintage Leon Russell album (note: That’s a good thing). Even the hip-hop-tinged take on Fatboy Slim and Macy Gray’s ”Demons” — with a guest appearance by Blackalicious’ Gift of Gab — coheres beautifully.

If only the same could be said of Al Green’s Everything’s OK. The disc is the all-too-aptly-titled follow-up to I Can’t Stop, Rev. Al’s swell 2003 return to the pop fold after years of gospel CDs. There’s nothing grievously wrong here, but there’s nothing transcendent, either (certainly not that predictable cover of ”You Are So Beautiful”). Sure, Green’s velvet voice is aural ambrosia, but we’ve got the nagging suspicion that this set came as a late-breaking afterthought to I Can’t Stop’s popularity. And like most afterthoughts, it’s noticeably less potent than the original idea. Is that really OK with you? (‘Cause it’s not with us.) Bomb: A; OK: B-