Without much notice from the pop mainstream, Myrrh Records in Texas has been assembling a most impressive roster: Philip Bailey (whose "Easy Lover" was a recent No. 1 hit for Columbia Records); Al Green (one of the top-selling singles artists of the '70s); Amy Grant (whose Aug. 16 show at the Merriweather Post Pavilion is selling briskly); Dion (who racked up such hits as "Runaround Sue" and "Abraham, Martin and John"); and Ever Call Ready (which includes the Eagles' Bernie Leadon and the Byrds' Chris Hillman).
All these artists are born-again Christians who want to make gospel records that sound as sharp and hip as pop radio. Myrrh gives them the opportunity to do just that.
Of course, trying to make gospel sound like pop can either be a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, Green's recent album shows how the same groove and attack that made his romantic soul singles so sizzling can also focus and intensify a more heavenly message. By contrast, Bailey's new gospel album shows how the fluffery of pop can smother the flames of gospel. The difference is the artist: Green is a great voice with a sure instinct for the emotional core of any song; Bailey is just a great voice.
Green's "Trust in God" (Myrrh SPCN 7-01-678306-5) is his sixth album for Myrrh since abandoning pop for gospel in 1980. He remains the most sensual singer in the religious music field; he makes you feel the spiritual experience in your nerve tips as well as in your heart.
The new record's real significance is the singer's return to songwriting. Green, who wrote such well-covered soul classics as "Take Me to the River" and "Let's Stay Together," has recorded almost none of his own material since 1978's "The Belle Album." This time he penned a third of the album's nine songs, and they boast the kind of pop hooks where the rhythmic twist is as important as the melodic catch.
If his new lyrics lack the dramatic tension of his best songs like "Belle" or "Tired of Being Alone," his vocals exploit the songs' pleasurable groove to radiate a most unsolemn religious joy. As the backup singers chant the jingly title from "All We Need Is a Little More Love," Green cruises around them with restless, wordless vowels that provide a yearning the words don't even hint at.
"Never Met Nobody Like You" could fit snugly on any of Green's greatest-hits collections from the '70s; it boasts an irresistible midtempo syncopation that heats up the song until he reaches an ecstatic falsetto. Though it's addressed to God, this is the kind of captivating love song that could be aimed in any direction. The album's title cut is a more traditional hymn, but Green pumps up the call-and-response pace until the listener is swept up in the accelerating momentum.
Aside from these three originals, Green tackles two soul standards easily reinterpreted as religious songs: Bill Wither's "Lean on Me" and Ashford & Simpson's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." Not only does he give them the patented Al Green vocal treatment, but he underscores the wide overlap between soul and gospel.
Philip Bailey's voice straddles the boundary between high tenor and falsetto with a warm, humming tone that has intoxicated listeners on his two solo albums and on his 13 albums with Earth, Wind & Fire. That voice is the centerpiece of Bailey's first gospel album, "The Wonders of His Love" (Myrrh SPCN 7-01-679606-X). Unfortunately, Bailey's scintillating voice is surrounded by the blandest of West Coast pop-soul formulas with no feel at all for gospel's traditions.
The best gospel records always imply a difficult but complete surrender to a larger force; the emotional catharsis that results from that surrender gives the music its power. There is no sense of surrender on Bailey's album; rather than give in to the music, he seeks to control it like the pop professional he is. This is no reflection on his beliefs, which are apparently sincere, but on his musical instincts, which have no roots in the gospel tradition.
Bailey wrote most of the material for "The Wonders of His Love" with such E, W & F associates as Skip Scarborough and Jerry Peters and with his first solo record producer, George Duke. So it's not surprising that the album resembles the vacuous spiritual slogans and overproduced radio filler of the later E, W & F albums. The background vocals don't boom like a church choir; they croon like an ad jingle session. The keyboards don't pump like a church organ or piano; they doodle or sigh with synthesized string charts. Gospel has never sounded so middle-of-the-road.
Unlike Green or Bailey, Amy Grant didn't have a successful pop career before turning to gospel. She is probably the biggest home-grown star in the gospel field right now, though, and she has done it with a soft-rock sound that manages to retain gospel's emotional commitment. In fact, she's been so successful that A & M has bought her contract from Myrrh.
Her best album is her last one from Myrrh, 1984's "Straight Ahead" (Myrrh, SPCN 7-01-675706-4). Grant's arrangements employ a seductive confidentiality on the verses followed by fervent advice on the choruses. The best example is her song "Where Do You Hide Your Heart," which opens with her talking to a friend in a casually personal vocal reminiscent of Rickie Lee Jones. When she advises her friend to turn over the hurt to Jesus, Grant belts out the chorus with the gritty conviction of a Donna Summer.
This approach works because Grant has a marvelous voice that can whisper intimately or belt authoritatively. It's effective because the songs by Grant and her associates have a fresh, punchy melodicism reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac. It's effective because Grant makes a total commitment to her message but still sympathizes with the listeners rather than preaching at them.
Grant's first major-label album, the new "Unguarded" (A & M SP 5060), is a little too slick to be as effective. The synthesizers are more obtrusive, and Grant never cuts loose in the uninhibited wail one expects from a gospel record. Producer Brown Bannister has made Grant sound too much like Stevie Nicks and not enough like Aretha Franklin. You can always identify a calculated move to pop like this one, because the producer copies mainstream pop formulas rather than coming up with an original variation.
Nonetheless, Grant's caressing voice and tugging melodies give "Unguarded" its quota of pleasure. The most traditional-sounding hymn is "The Prodigal," and Grant sighs with affectionate patience as she sings convincingly of waiting for a straying friend to return. The best of the pop-rock songs is "Everywhere I Go," which catches the ear with a repeating hook and feathery harmonies.
A Christian message is implicit in every song, but it's far less overt than in the past as Grant moves toward a pop career. "I Love You" is a standard-issue pop love song for Grant's backing singer, cowriter and husband Gary Chapman. The first single, "Find a Way," is a rather unconvincing rocker in the Pat Benatar mold that offers love as a generic panacea. Much better is "Who to Listen To," which is the one song with the conversational understatement and commitment of her earlier albums.