Sounds like … Michael W. Smith classics reinterpreted in the modern pop, rock and dance genres
At a glance … today's top artists pay tribute to the legend through mostly inventive re-interpretations likely to introduce his older material to a younger audience
Michael W. Smith needs no introduction as one of the top artists in contemporary Christian music history. Given his track record and enormous impact through almost 30 years of music ministry, a tribute CD seems only fitting. It seems equally appropriate that the project would come from Rocketown Records, the label Smith founded. The ten-track CD, Ultimate Music Makeover: The Songs of Michael W. Smith, features some of today's top artists—and a few from yesteryear—putting a fresh spin on several of Smitty's most memorable songs.
Launching the list is "Go West Young Man," a pop/rock staple revisited by All Star United, whose Brit-pop influences shine through loud and proud, giving the track a more modern rock and melodic flavor. Sarah Kelly's "You Need a Savior" follows, giving the early classic a fresh rock interpretation just enough '80s seasoning. Stylistically, she sounds more like The Benjamin Gate or newcomer Sarah Brendel, but her mighty vocal still impressively soars. "Rocketown," another '80s classic, is surprisingly interpreted as a punk-influenced rocker by Shaun Groves—certainly his most aggressive performance to date, likely to reach a younger audience with an older song.
"Secret Ambition," as performed by the David Crowder Band, needed little change to make it work as an album highlight. Still, they tweak it just enough by spiking the familiar beats with some electronic elements. Smitty's synth-heavy "Lamu" hasn't held up as well with age, but the fan favorite is given a respectful makeover by Taylor Sorensen, who belts out the words sounding like a mixture of Bruce Springsteen and Sting—with the electric guitars cranked up to eleven. Speaking of amplified guitars, Stryper's power ballad rendition of Smitty's signature song "Friends" is a melodic metal gem, escalating the instrumental intensity and Michael Sweet's vocal volume with every passing chorus.
Tree63 tackles a newer track with their guitar rock treatment of 1998's "Missing Person." Aside from a few flourishes, it sounds virtually the same as the original, though it's still as catchy as ever. In contrast, one of the more noticeable transformations comes with Plumb's take on "Pray for Me." Fondly remembered as a touching ballad, the song here gets a programmed dance club spin. Some diehards will frown on this radical re-imagining, and yet it still kind of works.
Todd Agnew's version of "On the Other Side" is more likely to throw listeners for a loop, combining Counting Crows and Creed for a heavier, acoustic rock sound. Unfortunately, Agnew's growling vocal doesn't suit the track well—imagine Scott Stapp's more annoying warbling. But the most confounding track comes, ironically enough, from Smitty's own son, Ryan, who covers "The Race Is On." Steering away from the sugary new wave dance pop of the original, this folk rock interpretation is mature and meaty, reminiscent of Vigilantes of Love or Neil Young, but it's hindered by some nasal vocals (reminiscent of some of Dad's early work).
Though the shortcomings are minimal, they bring Ultimate Music Makeover down a notch from what it could have been. And with the depth of Smitty's catalog, it would have been nice to feature even more breadth in sound and songwriting, rather than settle on only ten songs. Still, this album is capable of introducing the legend's '80s and '90s classics to a new generation.
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