Third albums can define a band, or so I've heard. It makes sense, really. Album one is the chance to make a good first impression. Album two is dangerous; it could break new ground or fall victim to the dreaded "sophomore slump." But once a band has survived first impressions and follow-up challenges, the third album is the time to shine. Two years after their stunning release The Heat, NEEDTOBREATHE does just that with The Outsiders, and it's safe to say that this is their finest offering so far.
NEEDTOBREATHE doesn't reinvent themselves here, and after the successful evolution between Daylight and The Heat, why should they? No one else sounds quite like them; their signature style is rooted in Southern rock influences, with just the right touches of piano and harmonica stirred into driving pop rock. In fact, the first listen or two may give you the feeling that this is The Heat 2, but listen closer, and the songs reveal that this is no formula album. There are plenty of adventurous songs to keep the mix interesting, from the title track's jangly banjo intro to the fist-pumping anthem "Let Us Love" and many more great songs in between.
If The Heat was about establishing their style, The Outsiders thrives on taking the best of the past and stretching it in new directions. Songs like "Valley of Tomorrow" have an open, arena-ready rock sound. "Through Smoke" follows with a pounding drum beat and chanting background vocals that are simply magical, and it glides so perfectly into the more down-to-earth, boot-stomping intro of "Lay 'Em Down," that sometimes I just wanted to listen to that transition over and over.
Things take a softer turn with the tender ballad "Stones Under Rushing Water," a duet with Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins. Sara's harmony complements the song nicely, adding just the right touch of sadness and longing. In contrast, the following track "Prisoner" is a gritty rock song with a country flavor, and the thumping drums, fuzzy bass, and killer guitar solo set it apart as one of the heaviest rockers. Likewise, "Girl Named Tennessee" is pure fun from its rowdy piano intro to whistle-along finish. "Garden" is a creative perspective of Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane, starting with gentle acoustic guitar that crescendos into a powerful worship chorus.
NEEDTOBREATHE has the rare ability to craft music that lives comfortably between Christian and mainstream, whether wrestling with faith and doubt, declaring themselves outsiders while calling for oneness, or expressing the simple joys and pains of love. In fact, The Outsiders is full of contrasts, and the lyrical depth emerges more and more with every listen. And then in the midst of reflections on love, loss, and doubt, a "Girl Named Tennessee" dances into the picture to prove there's still plenty of fun to be had. It's a successful balancing act that they pull off with style and significance.
The Outsiders is one of those rare gems where every track stands out, some pulling you in with a catchy intro or a clever lyric, others surfacing after spending time with the music. Even after a lot of listens, I couldn't help but smile, laugh, think, and sing along. Longtime fans and newcomers alike take note; NEEDTOBREATHE have done it again with the greatest project of their career and perhaps one of the best of the year.- Review date: 8/23/09, written by Jen Rose of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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