Recording information: Sound Emporium, Nashville, TN; Spencer Creek Studio.
Photographers: Mary Caroline Mann; Zack Arias.
Two years after the dissolution of the David Crowder Band, its frontman and songwriter issues his solo debut, Neon Steeple. In his promo video for the record, the artist calls this music "folktronica." The term goes back to music journalist Jim Byers writing about Badly Drawn Boy. Momus' 2001 album was titled Folktronic, and as a "genre," early records by Beth Orton, Tunng, and many others fall under its umbrella. But this is a first for CCM. Etymological origins aside, Crowder's description is somewhat accurate, at least for its purposes. While "Neon Intro" is a rootsy acoustic number, it's immediately followed by massively looped handclaps, dropped synth basslines, four-on-the-floor drums and programs, acoustic guitars, banjo, Dobro, and fiddle in "My Beloved." Bluegrass melody aside, the sheeny production and rhythmic tack move it directly toward mainstream radio pop. Pre-release single "I Am," despite its wafting synth intro, is more processional -- at least in the first verse -- until the over-amped floor toms, kick drums, and waves of digitally delayed vocal choruses kick in on the refrain. It's a signature Crowder church anthem to be sure; it spent ten weeks in the Christian music charts, as did the other pre-release single "This I Know," a more subtle -- but no less triumphant -- affair that begins with fingerpicked guitars, mandolin, and fiddle. Unlike the rest of this set, its more organic-sounding backing chorus trounces the production even amid those thundering looped handclaps. The sonic framework is best utilized on the retro Bon Jovi-esque rock in "Lift Your Head Weary Sinner (Chains)," the country gospel of "Jesus Is Calling," and the shuffling "Ain't No Grave," which cleverly pairs strummed mandolins with oversized drum programs -- and a killer bridge. There are a pair of cuts that don't work: the anthem "Here's My Heart" is so derivative of U2 that its own identity is erased, and the balladic alter-call number "Come as You Are" feels too formulaic. If Crowder has a career signature -- besides writing hit worship songs -- it's been his quirkiness; that's certainly the quotient on Neon Steeple. Fans should be delighted. ~ Thom Jurek