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Music Review: Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken – Ampersand

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I have always been a very outspoken critic of the corn-fed, watered down, straight-off-the-tractor, comb-in-the-mouth, artistically barren music that is Christian “rock”. As far as I am concerned it has no redeeming artistic or social value, in that it neither inspires people to worship nor to appreciate great music. It is, in my opinion, just one more attempt to make Christianity appeal to younger people by showing them how much “fun” being a Christian can be. Not to mention the restrictions placed on Christian musicians by both the record labels and existing fan base, crushing out all true artistic growth, every spark of originality or individualism — as if being original or different were un-Christian or sinful.

That said, just because someone celebrates their love of a mythological being (God in this instance) by making artistically barren music doesn't necessarily mean they don't have talent, artistic vision or originality, nor does it mean that they are limited to that severely restricted genre. In the case of singer-songwriter Derek Webb – most famous as part of the Christian band Caedmon’s Call – and his equally talented and successful wife Sandra McCracken, that is certainly untrue, as evidenced by the release of their duet EP, Ampersand. It's beyond me why anyone who has enough talent to write music this hauntingly beautiful, touching, and gently passionate would want to confine that talent to the cookie cutter, formulaic music of Christian rock.

Ampersand is the first collaboration from these two deeply personal performers and a true joy to hear. Webb and McCracken's voices perfectly complement each other, harmonising playfully, dancing together in joyous vocal foreplay. McCracken's voice is a mixture of Emmylou Harris and Sean Colvin, rootsy, warbling, and gently, elegantly loving. And Webb's voice is a mixture of buttery smoothness and raw passion, like a good spicy whisky. And the same can be said of their musical styles; McCracken is a bit alt-folk, with country tinges and Webb, alt-country with rock colour. This collaboration sees the best that both these talented artists have to offer, what it doesn't offer are references to religion or Christianity – thank jebus.

Ampersand is filled with fabulous alt-country/folk-rock songs about two people who are very much in love. They write about their love in good and bad, passion and anger, willful selfishness and honest selflessness. In short, a happy marriage with all its ups and downs, love and hate, doubt and devotion. All the tracks have an honest, naked, comfortably exposed feeling, personal, but never leaving you feeling like a voyeur. Instead they open the front door and invite you in to witness their humanity and humility in the face of love. And that is just how each lyric seems to be approached, with love, as if each song were an offering to show their mutual love and respect. It's a humbling and enchanting thing to be party to.

Tracks to watch: “When the Summer's Gone”, a romantic rootsy folk track worthy of Harris or Colvin. McCracken takes lead vocals on this one with husband Webb in the background as they ask in perfect harmony, “When the summer's gone/ when the harvest comes and the leaves are red/ we'll remember then/ making love in the sun and the sand/ you are the one to whom my heart belongs/ will our love be strong when the summer's gone?”

In “Watch Your Mouth” it's Webb's turn on lead vocals. For this sexy, stripped back tune Webb's falsetto is perfectly equipped to carry this light but heartfelt track. “When the Lights Go Out” is a piano-driven song, with jingles of raining piano drenching you in smooth, mellow music, washing over you in much the same way as this entire EP does, less a flash flood and more a warm, inviting bath.

The Ampersand EP is a lush, mellifluous album, that feels like a deeply personal, but entirely comfortable glimpse into the hearts and minds of these two artists and happily married couple. Its only short-coming is its brevity; with only six songs you'll find yourself putting it on repeat so you can get just a little bit more and you'll end up listening to it over and over again. Let's hope this isn't their last collaboration.

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About A.L. Harper

  • You had me at mellifluous.

  • Do you like the word mellifluous or the concept. Or perhaps, you simply like that I can use it in a sentence.*laugh*

  • I agree with your review and your general assessment of “Christian” music. However, I would like to point out, as a fan of Derek Webb since his Caedmon’s Call beginnings, that his talent for songwriting does extend into his so-called “Christian” songs. A good musician is a good musician no matter what genre of music he is making. Derek, too, shares your perspective on the majority of Christian music, though he is technically a “Christian artist.” But I have often heard him say that a great shortcoming of the Christian music genre is that it focuses on “the top 5% of spiritual things and ignores the other 95%” — Derek, on the other hand, has always written songs about the full 100% of life, crafted with reckless abandon from a Christian perspective (which simply cannot be separated from his songwriting in any form, because it is part of who he is). To quote him again, “Anything Jesus is Lord of, you can write a song about. And He is Lord of all.” In the case of the beautifully crafted “Ampersand,” we get to see what marriage looks like through the eyes of two people whose first and greatest love is Christ — enabling them to love one another that much more.

  • “we get to see what marriage looks like through the eyes of two people whose first and greatest love is Christ — enabling them to love one another that much more.”

    That statement makes me never want to listen to this album again. I feel dirty now.