Self-titled albums are typical for debut artists. When a veteran like Fernando Ortega releases one, it usually signals an artist's taking a new creative path. Indeed, Ortega's first album for Curb Records does just that.

Selling fairly well while also earning critical acclaim, Ortega's albums (now 12 in the last 15 years) have tended to follow the same formula—combining soft contemporary pop with beloved hymns. This album starts with a similar base but builds on it with an alternative folk/pop energy.

That sound is filled out by a terrific band of legendary studio musicians, including fiddle and dobro by bluegrass musicians Gabe and Michael Witcher (who have worked with Willie Nelson and Nickel Creek), percussionist Steve Hodges and bassist Larry Taylor (Tom Waits), and bassist Leland Sklar (James Taylor, Phil Collins). Combined with the strong guitar work of up-and-comer Rich Nibbe and the keyboards of longtime friend and producer John Andrew Schreiner, Ortega's album is sure and steady with thoughtful musicianship.

As a result, we're treated to a song like "Dragonfly," which sports a folk reggae feel more reminiscent of Los Lobos than the simple pop of one of Christian music's most celebrated inspirational artists. "When the Coyote Comes" finds Ortega singing to a bluesy folk/ country rockabilly shuffle. There's also "Noonday Devil," with its more straightforward, guitar-driven, Southern roots rock style.

What's striking about Ortega's music, especially this album, is the ease with which he integrates the sacred and the secular. Most Christian artists tend to lean too far one way or the other, either to minister through song or to reach non-Christians with secular music. Ortega, in contrast, believes that there's room ...

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December 2004

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