Sounds like … Classic rock, rootsy CCM, and singer-songwriter ballads.
At a glance … Stripped-down modern re-takes on Stonehill's classic Christian Rock gems, originally recorded in collaboration with and produced by Larry Norman.
Randy Stonehill goes home again on his latest recording Paradise Sky. The house is there—he can see his old room, the back yard, and even the broken pavement in the driveway. But the wallpaper is gone, the furniture is set up differently, and there's a massive flat-panel television where his dad's grandfather clock used to be.
It's dangerous business traveling through time, and even riskier messing with people's memories. As one of the unwitting architects of what became known as "Jesus Music," then "Contemporary Christian Music" or "Christian Rock," Stonehill's songs were more than simple ditties from a new believer. Under the tutelage of the enigmatic Larry Norman, Stonehill brought forth some of the most important songs in the shaping of an era. Now, over three decades later, and as a result of some legal obstacles involving licensing the original masters of these songs for the soundtrack of a compelling new documentary film about Larry Norman called Fallen Angel, eleven of these gems are back—all dressed up like modern hipsters with digital recording and crystal clear sound. The acne of vinyl pops and tape hiss are gone. The songs have grown up. It's stunning how relevant some of them remain.
As an avowed fan of the original recordings of Stonehill's catalog, your reviewer must admit to a great deal of fear and trembling as he fumbled with the plastic wrap on this well-packaged CD, the official soundtrack to Fallen Angel. The back cover photo references not only Stonehill's resume, but the lingering presence of the late Larry Norman with snakeskin boots and a twice bitten apple from his So Long Ago The Garden album art. Though the title here clearly references Stonehill's '76 masterpiece Welcome to Paradise and its much-loved follow up The Sky Is Falling, in fact a few songs come from Stonehill's 1971 underground debut Born Twice and a couple others from later on.
Unlike most Christian music of the 1970s, Stonehill's records hold up extremely well. Thanks in no small part to Norman's production (as well as the strength and timelessness of the underlying songs), the originals balance soulful expression with youthful raw rock muscle in ways that most Christian artists never could. It is interesting, therefore, to hear classics like "Keep Me Running" and "King of Hearts" re-recorded. The result is surprisingly compelling. "Keep Me Running," for instance, might lack some of the subtlety and texture of the '76 version, but it rocks much more blatantly. The same is true throughout most of the disc. A few of the songs do offer significant improvement over the originals. The testimonial "Norman's Kitchen," originally recorded on a shoe-string budget, shimmers here with wildly improved guitar chops and clearer vocals. "Counterfeit King" benefits from lush strings and crystal clear recording.
By and large, however, these are just different, more contemporary versions of the songs, not necessarily better ones. It would be difficult indeed to improve upon the original masterpieces. The liner notes, both by Stonehill and Fallen Angel writer/director David DiSabatino, and the collage of vintage photos add excellent context. Hopefully a new generation of music fans will discover Stonehill's impressive catalog, his lasting legacy, and his current, amazing work. Paradise Sky definitely demonstrates that Stonehill is at the height of his powers as a guitarist, vocalist, and overall performer.
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