Sounds like … traditional black gospel songs played with bluesy swagger and rock 'n' roll intensity
At a glance … this celebration of black gospel songs rocks hard, and celebrates faith with grit and integrity
Ashley Cleveland's latest, God Don't Never Change, is described in its press release as a "celebration of vintage black gospel songs," but of course, like most genre signifiers, this one is only so useful. Yes, the traditional songs she performs here all have a rich history within the African-American community, and, with their themes of struggle and strife, many of them resonate with a particularly African-American point of view. That said, black gospel music is hardly the music of one particular demographic alone; it's as much the music of America as any other, a part of the very DNA of rock 'n' roll itself—a connection that Cleveland makes explicit.
Cleveland is a sensitive performer who knows just what to bring to a particular song or style of music, as was evident on 2005's Men and Angels Say, a collection of traditional hymns. These songs are, in some ways, the exact opposite of those, changing erudite poetry for simpler, gritty declarations of faith, and theological precision for nearly visceral expressions of real-life encounters with the Living God.
And as it turns out, that dovetails quite nicely with Cleveland's own style. For years, she's been an unsung hero within Christian music circles, slowly perfecting a gritty blues-rock style that falls somewhere between Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi—though on this album, she's rawer and more immediate than either of those artists. Joined by guitarist, producer, and husband Kenny Greenberg, Cleveland turns "You Got to Move" into a smoldering rocker, and the old camp spiritual "When This World Comes to an End" into an anthem to shake the rafters and blow a hole in the ceiling.
The album is, indeed, a celebration, but it works best when Cleveland and Greenberg restrain themselves from overdoing it. Opening song "My God Called Me This Morning" is an unadorned acoustic blues ballad, and an album highlight; elsewhere, on the leaner rock numbers, Cleveland's backing band plays with inspired minimalism, keeping these blues quick and dirty. A couple of tracks go for full-on gospel bluster, right down to the backing choir, but this somehow seems like overkill when compared to the restraint shown in the other tracks.
Regardless, the album stands tall as one of the best gospel-rock albums in a long time. That's in large part because Cleveland is smart enough to make it not just a celebration of gospel music, but of gospel faith itself—it preserves not just the songs, but the stories and the spirit behind them.
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