Out There

Wade in the water

Selections 1976-1988
Sweet Honey in the Rock
Flying Fish/Rounder Records

Gospel Oak
Sinead O'Connor
EMI and/or Capitol Records

Nowadays it seems that all you need is a city or church name in front of the words "Mass Choir" in order to put out an album, but not so long ago gospel music was primarily the domain of African-American churchgoers and studious music fans (punks admired its emotional component; scholars and bluesers, its wellspring relationship to all of American music). Sweet Honey in the Rock was one of the groups that changed that, introducing gospel to the music-curious public.

Selections presents the early history of the group (still together and performing today), and in the process indicts most gospel as shallow and formulaic, whether it's the washed-out roar of mass choirs or the dance-ready slickness of studio groups. Drawing on a sensibility rooted in the civil rights movement, the a cappella group features many original songs written by guiding light Bernice Johnson Reagon. Regardless of authorship, however, Sweet Honey deals with gospel both as a synthesis--the hymns and church songs with which most modern folk are familiar ("Feel Something Drawing Me On")--and in its component parts. These tributaries trace the Black experience through history, through the blues ("Stranger Blues") and spirituals ("Rivers of Babylon"), and even back to Africa ("Meyango," a West African funeral song).

It's close to a classroom, presenting both the intentions ("Ella's Song") and the heroes of a struggle ("Joan Little," "Biko") as old as humankind. There's no stridency, though--the beautiful blending of the women in Sweet Honey's voices and the adoption of diverse lyrical sources (Kahlil Gibran, Paul Elouard, St. Matthew, and Ferron contribute words in some form or another) keep things direct without coming off as harsh. Selections is an essential album for gospel buffs and general music fans alike.

If any European people would have an innate affinity for gospel, it would be the Irish. While Irish songstress Sinead O'Connor sprinkles references to Israel throughout this six-song EP, the songs are more soothing, introspective lullabies--songs of liberation and deliverance on a personal level. Still, a sense of continuance, of struggle for the future, is very much there. O'Connor keeps her remarkable voice tightly in check throughout, avoiding histrionics in favor of a subtle resolve that rings with more potency than any bald display of power. In this, Gospel Oak is gospel to the core.

--Matt Weitz

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Matt Weitz