Israel & New Breed 'Jesus at the Center' Album Review
Prime Cuts: Your Presence is Heaven, Jesus At the Center, To Make You Feel My Love/Name of Love
Houghton once said that if he were not an artist, he would be an activist. Well, honestly he is both. "Jesus at the Center" is more than just a worship record. This is a record set out to radically change the world. Daring, uplifting, affirmative, challenging and ultimately life transforming, Houghton and the New Breed throughout these two discs advocate the magisterial thrust of keeping Jesus at the center of everything that we do. And if this thesis were to be lived out, it would radically change the way we treat each other, our attitude towards ourselves, and the way we worship. And not only are the songs overwhelmingly convicting, Houghton sings with such an abandon passion for Jesus that it is hard not to be spiritually ravished after this double discs come to a standstill. Maybe this is why Houghton is one of the very few artists who could capture the hearts and souls of people within and outside the Contemporary Christian Music scene. To date, he is the only Christian artist to have two back-to-back Billboard Top 200 best selling albums, performed with Alicia Keys and George Michael, and have 2 Gold-selling albums, 3 Grammy Awards, 12 Dove Awards and a Soul Train Awards. Further, Houghton is also a much sought after producer having produced excellent records for Darlene Zschech and the Gungor Band. This time round, Houghton has brought in a red carpet of some of the who's who in music today including Aaron Lindsey, Michael Gungor, T-Bone, Bishop Michael Pitts, Tina Baker and even Israel's daughter, Mariah Houghton.
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Just like their previous albums, this is a sonic pastiche of Gospel, ballads, pop, rock, reggae & funk. However with all songs being co-written by Houghton (with the exception of Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love" and Michael and Lisa Gungor's "You Have Me") there is the consistency of the theme of Jesus. The most talked about track here has to be the title cut "Jesus At the Center." A track that first appeared on Houghton and New Breed's "Decade" release, "Jesus At the Center" has become such a signature song for the group that it makes sense to reprise it here again three times here. For those uninitiated, "Jesus At the Center" is a classic worship ballad in Hillsong's bombastic style (a la "At the Cross" and "Hosanna"). Starting off with the piano in whispery shades, soon the song explodes into its infectious and grandiose chorus. It is so catchy that you will find yourself singing "from my heart to the heavens Jesus at the center." Continuing the theme that if Jesus is at the center there is no hopeless cause is the current single "It's Not Over (When God is in It)." Accompanied by a powerhouse choir and the humming of some organ flourishes, this is modern Gospel at its best. While "Your Presence is Heaven" takes the best of old school jazz and some sauvé modern R&B giving us some quieter moments to reflect on God's presence after a mostly upbeat album.
If you are looking for some Gospel funk, look no further than "Rez Power." Houghton gives a turbo-charged performance adulating the power of what the resurrected Christ can do over a horn-driven tune calling to mind his earlier favorites like "Our God" and "Say So." Being recorded live, Houghton certainly knows how to engage his congregation on "I Call on Jesus"-a beautiful litany of praise to the second person of the Trinity. With some 70s styled synth and some hand clapping sounding drums, "Jesus the Same" is definitely going to be one of many church's favorites in no time. Houghton's daughter Mariah joins dad on Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love" and then sliding into the original "Name of Love." Though Mariah sounds a little shaky at parts but not since Garth Brooks' cover has there been a more delightful cover of this Dylan classic.
Since this is a live recording and this being mainly a Gospel recording, it is expected that Houghton talks, preaches, interacts and shouts his praises throughout the two discs. However, at times, such extraneous rhetoric gets a little too indulgent making some songs sound endless. "Overflow" for instance is over 10 minutes long. This may be passable for a live setting but on disc it becomes tedious. Also, often Houghton comes across too overwhelming that there's hardly any time throughout the two discs for some quieter down time. Some of his ballads ("I Call on Jesus" and 'Your Presence is Heaven") for instance could definitely benefit from a break from those over the top deliveries. Other than these quibbles, "Jesus At the Center" is an important record: it's a solemn call to churches and worship music to truly put Jesus first. Put Jesus first and the rest will fall in place. Push Jesus second and the fury of hell will be unleashed.
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