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Counting Stars

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The Advocate

Counting Stars by Andrew Peterson

Reviewed by Bert Gangl

"...offering newcomers and dyed-in-the-wool devotees alike an impressive array of intriguing, sturdily-crafted pieces from one of Christian pop’s most talented practitioners."

James Lipton, host of the Bravo cable television series, Inside the Actors Studio, once quipped during an interview with John Cusack that, “When you go to see a John Cusack movie, you know exactly what you’re going to get.” Far from intimating that Cusack was one-dimensional or less than thoroughly engaging, Lipton’s remark was actually meant as an acknowledgement of the consistency and distinctiveness of Cusack’s imposing body of work. Those most familiar with Andrew Peterson’s career trajectory up to this point might well be tempted to apply that same sort of remark to the critically-heralded performer’s back catalog. Indeed, from the time of his 1996 debut indie debut, Walk, all the way up to 2008’s Resurrection Letters, Volume II, the man who many have dubbed the heir apparent to Rich Mullins has been faithfully surveying the intersection where the folk and pop roads meet, with equally winning results.

Fortunately for those in the fan base, Peterson’s latest work serves up yet another welcome slice of that which his truest devotees are hankering for. The winning album opener, “Many Roads,” marries an absolutely engrossing melody line to a consummately-woven instrumental texture that is, at once, both lilting and haunting. Likewise, the buoyant cadence of “Dancing in the Minefields” ought to be at absolute odds with its distinctly sober-minded thesis on the inherent challenges of married life – and yet, somehow, its disparate halves fit together flawlessly. The sparseness of the beautiful piano-based “Isle of Skye” works perfectly to heighten its inspiring sense of majesty. And the country-inflected minor-keyed tones of “In The Night My Hope Lives On” run in reverse time through essential ‘80s-era Mellencamp releases like Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee all the way back to the enthralling traditional folk well from which Peterson seems to draw from so effortlessly.

His sparkling musical acumen notwithstanding, it is Peterson’s lyrical skills that truly set him apart from the majority of his peers. Like each of the projects that have come before it, Stars shows him to be a songwriter of near-unparalleled literacy and insight. “The Magic Hour” (“Come walk the cedar stand/ Over the broken dam/ Sit on the bench at the bend in the trail again”) paints a picture of razor-sharp clarity and heart-warming poignancy. “Many Roads” highlights his uncanny ability to bounce between self-effacing humor (“If you traveled all this way/ Then I will do my best to play/ My biggest hits/ That don't exist”) and gut-level honesty (“I cast out all these lines/ So afraid that I will find/ That I am all alone”) in virtually the same breath. And “In the Night My Hope Lives On” manages the seemingly impossible feat of recounting the old, familiar, stories of the Red Sea, Elisha’s battle and the prodigal son in such a way that most listeners will feel as if they’re hearing them for the very first time.

On the rarest of occasions, Peterson’s lyrics teeter on the verge of becoming overly precious or self-referential. And just as a fair portion of efforts like The Far Country and Behold The Lamb Of God tended to be somewhat musically undistinguished, cuts such as “Fool with a Fancy Guitar” and “Planting Trees” from Stars lack the near-instant memorability that informs his most well-constructed compositions. In Peterson’s defense, the tracks on the new record are never less than impeccably performed. And his aforementioned way with words goes a great distance toward compensating for the occasional musical misstep. Those who’ve heard Peterson’s previous releases and found that they could take them or leave them aren’t likely to be brought into the fold by what they hear on the latest outing. And his 2000 major-label debut, Carried Along, still remains the most ideal jumping-in point for the uninitiated. Taken on its own merit, however, Counting Stars fares quite nicely, indeed – offering newcomers and dyed-in-the-wool devotees alike an impressive array of intriguing, sturdily-crafted pieces from one of Christian pop’s most talented practitioners.

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.