We are seeing a resurgence of hymns in the church today. While the exact definition of a hymn is up for debate (and no, it doesn't simply mean an old church song), bands like Sovereign Grace and CityAlight are proving that this battle-worn vessel, which has been the go-to in the church since nigh its existence, can more then survive the modern age of backing tracks and mile-long bridges.
Enter Middle River Hymnal, formed by worship-leading duo Josh Diaz and Laura Creel, who recorded their spin on five classic hymns for their church in Fort Lauderdale during last year’s social distancing. Providentially, the hymns patterned nicely into a playlist for this year's “Holy Week.”
The duo's tapered bluegrass style is fairly unique, combining back-porch plucked guitar, worn-down spinets, banjo, and swelling harmonies, along with some surprising trumpets to add stateliness to the sound. Josh’s voice reminded me of Tenth Avenue North’s Mike Donehey, while Laura’s whispered, reverberated head voice brought to mind Brandi Carlile, and the voices play off each other nicely throughout the live recording.
The duo does well to let the songs “sit” when needed, then layering in dynamic verse upon verse, a necessity seeing the rather simplistic format of hymns. These hymns are well-known to congregants, so opting for a minimalist approach is wise, yet perhaps a bit too unassuming. In other words, go into this playlist ready to sing along to classic hymns with subtle changes, such as the 6/8 time signatures in “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” and “How Great Thou Art,” but don't expect a massive reworking. In fact, the biggest change is the duo’s southern style itself. The 19th century closer “Were You There” proved to be the highlight here, both by being the most “on the nose” in regards to Good Friday and Easter, as well as building the strongest by rotating lead singers between verses, and a sparkling horn interlude.
This little playlist is a good introduction to Middle River Hymnal. The sound is in place, and they clearly have chemistry formed by almost a decade of leading worship together. I'll be looking forward to some original content in the future to help springboard them into the center of the modern hymn movement.- Review date: 4/13/21, written by Joel Zaloum of Jesusfreakhideout.com
Record Label: Gospel Song Records
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