Out There

Loud and clear

I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray
The Fairfield Four
Warner Brothers Records

Black gospel singing at its best is transcendent--a striking contrast to the travails of African-Americans--and the Nashville-based Fairfield Four (in fact, five) are among the most uplifting voices to be heard today. With a lineage running back to the 1920s, the Fairfield Four have become the backup singers du jour in the '90s. They have recorded and performed with such artists as John Fogerty, Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, and Lyle Lovett. I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray plays that trump card, albeit subtly: Costello performs his song "That Day Is Done" (which he co-wrote with Paul McCartney) with the Four on this disc, and wrote liner notes. Pam Tillis sings a song as well, and Garrison Keillor gives a recitation on another track.

Avoiding the star-studded album of guest duets was an artistically wise move, because it's the Four's own talents that take this collection to the heavens. Significantly, the only two tracks here that aren't performed a cappella are the ones with Tillis and Costello, where an accompanying piano probably helps keep the pop artists on key. Tillis rips her way through "Get Away Jordan," but for all her vocal finesse, there's a certain something you hear in the Fairfield Four behind her--soul? seasoning? grace?--that Tillis' obvious singing talents can't match. Costello may have less of a voice, but what counts is the gracefully emotive reading he gives "That Day," making it a special moment.

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But the genuine magic here comes from the Fairfields themselves, unaccompanied. There's a rainbow of voices in this quintet--the honey-sweet tenor of newest and youngest member Joseph Rice; the exhorting shouts (a la Otis Redding) of baritone Robert Hamlett on "Noah"; Isaac Freeman's slinky bass; James Hill's snappy, almost comedic delivery; and the folktale mannerisms of Walter Settles. At different points, each of them steps out front. But it's the simple, yet rich weave of their tapestry that indicates how close these men come to divining and expressing some great cosmic master plan, a sound that seduces the ear into a state of grace, if only just for the awesome beauty of it all. Though the bulk of the material is public domain standards, the fact that the two best songs are from the pen of group member James Hill is a further testament to this outfit's creative halo. If I do happen one day to stumble up to the pearly gates, the first sounds I hear will no doubt be ones such as these.

--Rob Patterson

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