Israel Houghton’s The Power of One

READ, WATCH & LISTEN: Read my online review below, and if you’re around at 1:00pm EST today, please join me here for a live review of the album. Might even win yourself some free music, too!

israel houghton tpo1

SURPRISED BY TWITTER: I always tell people that FaceBook is where I connect with friends I’ve met along the way; Twitter is where I have conversations with people in fields that I’m interested in pursuing. And one of those conversations with Integrity Music (@integritymusic) surprised me by providing a complimentary copy of Israel Houghton’s newest release, The Power of One – Worship Leader Edition, for review. (Thanks Chad!).

First off, the whole “Worship Leader Edition” needs explaining. As stated on his website, this expanded version contains the original full album (The Power of One), plus a special CD with acoustic versions of ten of the songs that are more suited to worship environments. It also includes matching sheet music, chord charts, and lyric text files for the ten acoustic versions of the songs. The Worship Leader Edition also has a special DVD that features a live performance of the ten acoustic songs, guitar instructional tutorials for select songs, stories behind the songs and a “making of” video. All in all, it’s quite the package.

MAKING A STATEMENT: If you ask when Israel’s mark was made on the industry, everyone will tell you it was with New Season Live. We had all heard Gospel and Urban, and we had all heard white-boy-guitar worship…but this–this was all something entirely different. I still remembering my good friend and director of worship for The Father’s House, Denis Johnson Jr. (@denis_jr), handing me the CD saying, “You must listen to this.” I was riveted as I sat, mouth open, listening to worship music that I wish I had come up with, but knew was way out of my league. So pushing the boundaries is nothing new to Israel, and The Power of One is no exception.

PUSHING THE ENVELOPE: In all honesty, I’m still not exactly sure where Israel is trying to go, but he certainly has my attention. He continues to hold my respect as a Christian, a worship leader, and a musician, so he’s going to get a pretty good review from me no matter what; but that being said, he definitely seems to be stretching into new avenues, less classically worshipful and more humanitarian-performance-inspirational. How that’s packaged, marketed, and advertised with a large record company is always a challenge.

I’ll get to his worship cuts in a second, but first, a glimpse into new territory. The second half of the main disc displays quite the myriad of musical dishes by not only incorporating the vocal talents of such notables as tobyMac, Martin Smith of Delirious?, Mary Mary and Chevelle Franklin, but also their stylistic qualities as well. I didn’t know Israel could pull off tobyMac…but he does! Not sure it’s my groove for Israel every day, but the drive sure had me. And his duet with Martin Smith felt more like I was listening to a classic U2/Delirious? tune with some shades of Paul Simon harmonies, but again, enough of Israel’s falva’ (mainly due to his signature voice) that I didn’t feel like Houghton flew to London for a single. His other songs with Tommy Sims and Mary Mary were more expected although still letting the artists help shape the direction of the cut. Overall, pretty cool. Favorite? No. Trendy? Yes. But more importantly, I think Israel had a lot of fun with these tracks. I know I would have.

STICK WITH WHAT YOU KNOW: Now, not saying Israel and his band can’t lay down Motown with the best of them–I’ll put Aaron Lindsey and Tommy Sims up against the best arrangers of Detroit any day of the week and twice on Tuesdays–but I think Israel’s strongest anointing lies in his worship writing and leading. And that’s where this album really shines, as does the purpose for the Worship Leader Edition. Getting to hear Israel on the acoustic CD really shows you just how much of a master musician and singer he really is. All those vocal parts you normally hear New Breed covering? Yeah, he sings ‘em. Falsetto mostly. But enough to make you say, “Dang, he’s getting around on those parts.” Not only is he a consummate worship leader, but he plays the guitar with ease (thus why we white boys have at least a sporting chance of following along when watching him on the DVD).

LOSING THE WHITE BOYS; WHY IT’S A GOOD THING: Hearing the broken-down band also helps make the music slightly more palatable, something I enjoyed immensely. But if you fall into 90% of Caucasian, North American churches, you’re about to get blown away with gorgeously jazzy Blue Note piano lines and percussion parts not conducive to clapping on “1″ and “3.” And sorry to say “F,” “G,” and “C” are nowhere to be seen (except in passing). Even though Integrity has packaged this product incredibly well (A++ for that), I still am not convinced a typical 150-person church is going to able to grab a hold of more than two of these songs at best…something the “Worship Leader Edition” tag might mislead you on. They are simply too hard, and I mean that as an absolute compliment; here’s where I think Israel is trying to make a powerful point (or at least I’m going to make one for him).

So much of what we have been fed as “worship music” over the past decade is simple, 1-4-5 songs with congregationally-acclimatized melodies. But arguably some of the most powerful music of all time–specifically referring to Christians who wrote such works as–say, The Messiah–is stuff that you would not only not hear in most churches on a Sunday, but most people could not even play it on a Sunday. It requires too much skill. Too much practice. And sadly, that hearkens of a poor commentary on many Christian musicians today. They have not honed their craft to a place where excellence in ability equals excellence in anointing. Not saying we’re all terrible–I know plenty who are amazing!–but as a general rule, with the thousands of churches I have traveled to in my life, I do not find a plethora of talent. Rule of thumb: Great hearts. Little skill.

Granted, I will take anointing any day. That’s not the argument. But rather, are there people who would be as concerned with cultivating the anointing on their lives as they would be their commitment to musical excellence? Israel, I believe, is a perfect example of that. And it should do one thing for us all: raise the bar. This is not a condemnation word; if you’re hearing that in my writing, that’s not the intent. But rather, it’s an invitation word to be greater than we are currently. Some people will always play E, A, and B, and the Lord will move. But I believe we are tapping .0001% of the creative storehouses of the Holy Spirit be limiting Him to three chords when He Himself invented notes beyond our ability to hear for His pleasure.

So if you’re like me, I didn’t listen to the Worship Leader Edition saying, “Hey, I’m going to teach that to my worship team for Sunday this week,” I said, “Wow, I need to go practice.”

SONGS I LOVED: Moving Forward has to be my favorite song on the album. Normally, I gravitate to Israel’s hoppin’ stuff. But here, the acoustic guitar and light percussion with haunting pads and electric guitar Keaggy swells were simply too haunting for me not to savor. And, as I said before, it’s a song of worship…of intimacy to be more exact. Surely Goodness is probably my second favorite tune, the “Madly, madly, madly” line worth the price of admission alone.

I Receive also won me over, even though the first half of the song felt like I was listening to a Genesis intro complete with Chester Thompson fills. But seeing as how Genesis is one of my top three favorite bands of all time (and those are qualities that made them such a success), I couldn’t help but like the production of this well-written song.

U R Loved is so musically and lyrically complex that I had to love it, especially since I heard undertones of my boy Dave Matthews. And Everywhere That I Go lends itself to the classic Israel Houghton writing that I remember from New Season Live.

THE POWER OF ONE: The title track (appearing on both discs), oddly enough, is not a worship song–at least in my opinion. Even though it’s listed on the acoustic CD which is billed as “ten songs that are perfect for worship in any church,” I can’t ever see myself playing it in church, save as a special. Don’t get me wrong; the song, and it’s production, are fantastic, even if it is the response to John Mayer’s Waiting On The World To Change, and the overtly Christian version of Jonny Lang’s One Person At a Time.

I’m not sure this CD was the best use of the title Worship Leader Edition, simply because it’s too good…it’s too far beyond most of us. The chord sheets and DVD shots of Israel playing are great…as teasers. If you want to be wowed and have another remarkable journey with Mr. Houghton, by all means, order it today. I am a huge fan of this record and will be listening to it for a long time to come (and allowing it to burst my musical bubble with every song). But as for making it a universally “attainable” album for a larger demographic of worship leaders, I think it’s a little hard to reach. Is that what we need? Probably. But the rub is that it takes work to get there. (And more lessons). ch: