Reviewed by Bert Gangl
Believer by Kutless
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The eminently successful Portland natives once again draw from their ample supply of irresistible pop hooks.
Ask most folks how hard it is to write a great pop song and they’ll tell you there’s nothing to it. String three or four basic chords together, chorus follows verse, toss in a bridge and, voilà, there you have it. Like most things, though, this sort of endeavor winds up being much easier to perpetrate in theory than it is in actual practice. Indeed, ask any artist who’s set themselves down to write the perfect three-and-a-half-minute ditty, and they’ll be quick to tell you that few things in life are even remotely as difficult.
After a brief dalliance with what might be called heavy alt-rock on their debut, the men of Kutless almost immediately backed off from their original metal-loving inclinations and began the slow, but gradual, metamorphosis into a tight, melodically-inclined pop/rock outfit. The move, as it turns out, was a fortuitous one. In the period between 2004’s Sea of Faces and 2011’s It Is Well, the band climbed into the Christian Top 40 charts ten times, scored eight Dove Award nominations and netted gold- record sales for their 2005 worship effort, Strong Tower.
After developing what many would consider a sort of signature, and inarguably highly successful, sound, one could rightly ask if front man Jon Micah Sumrall and his cohorts have stepped out on a ledge and investigated any uncharted territory on the latest outing. The long and short of it is ... not so much. Rather than totally abandoning that which has brought them to the current station in their careers, the quintet’s seventh release is more of a consolidation of strengths than an exploration of unexplored musical avenues.
Of course, this is hardly a bad thing in and of itself. Indeed, the band play both ends of their now-familiar pop/rock format with as stirring results as they’ve achieved on any of their previous undertakings. The leadoff cut, “If It Ends Today,” is an alluringly frenetic slice of modern rock that owes more than a little debt to U2’s overlooked early-era classic, “Gloria.” The likewise pep-filled “Need” wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place during the height of the late ‘90s/early ‘00s emo explosion. On the other side of the coin, the sparkling adult contemporary ballad “Hero” hits the bulls eye squarely in the center. The slightly country-inflected “Come Back Home” is as beautiful as it is emotive. And the shimmering, acoustically-based “Even If” is as near-perfect a pop confection as the band have ever served up.
To be fair, the record does have its share of less-than-perfect moments. “Gravity” and the title track are, for the most part, by-the-numbers power ballads that sound very much like every other song played on Christian hit radio. Cuts like “I’m With You,” although marginally more appealing, still come up well short of forging a truly memorable hook or melody. The five piece also struggles lyrically, as evidenced by “Carry On” (Carry on/ When all my strength is gone/ You're still holding on) and “If It Ends Today” (We could be the generation/ To shout out to every nation/ Love is on His way/ Get ready/ Are you ready?/ I'm ready!), both of which are far more musically well-crafted than thematically engaging.
That said, even with
the lesser entries taken into account, Believer is still a very impressive
addition to the group’s canon. To be sure,
while many a band has struggled to maintain their proverbial mojo past the
second or third albums, the Kutless crew appears to have a seemingly endless
stash of catchy pop hooks ferreted safely away, the likes of which are certainly
on plentiful display on the new project. And the slower material, in particular,
continues to offer listeners a head-on view of Sumrall’s forceful,
yet crystal-clear, vocal work and impassioned delivery – which, themselves
alone, are worth the price of admission. Devotees who have already fallen
in love with the talented Oregonians will hardly find anything here to dampen
their affections. For those who have yet to take the plunge, though, the
latest release, true to its namesake, might just turn more than a few naysayers
into true-blue believers.
Bert Gangl was formally introduced to the wonderful world of Christian music
by his baby brother as the two were winding their way through Western Tennessee
in the family automobile. Ever intent on proving that not all Christian artists
were knock-offs of their mainstream counterparts, the younger Gangl duly inserted
his newly-purchased copy of White Heart's Freedom into the waiting car tape player
and the rest, as they say, is history. In the twenty years that have transpired
since that time, Bert has amassed a sizeable CCM album collection of his own
and has gone on to write reviews for a range of music-related sites including
ChristRock , The Phantom Tollbooth, inReview and The All-Music Guide. He currently
resides in Huntsville, Alabama, with his wife and daughter.