Out There

From Ziklag to Zion
Nobody But You
Slim and the Supreme Angels
Intersound Records

Living on the Other Side
IIIrd Tyme Out
Rounder Records

The African-American gospel quartet tradition has had an enormous impact on pop music: The vocal stylings live on in soul and R&B, and the idea of music as testimony is part and parcel of rap, albeit in a much grittier form. Slim and the Supreme Angels have been an essential gospel group since their beginnings in 1950s Milwaukee, savvy enough to rack up hits like "Shame on You" and "If I'm Too High (Lord Bring Me Down)," yet possessing enough finesse to find the spiritual confession that lies at the heart of the old blues number "Nobody's Fault But Mine."

In an arena where gospel music is becoming a bigger business, many groups pump out slick R&B as appropriate for the dance floor as for the church or turn out full-choir live efforts whose unwieldy roar varies little. Individual identity is often obscured, but Slim and the Supreme Angels possess continuity: the Reverend Howard "Slim" Hunt has been with the group since 1958, their leader since 1960, and guitarist Robert "Sugar" Hightower--few can make a burning guitar solo sound as joyfully sanctified as he--has been with them nearly as long.

Recorded live, the force of the music is greatly enhanced by the precision of the quartet presentation, four voices that combine to form a pulpit from which the Reverend Hunt--whether singing or speaking--can preach. There's the gently longing ballad "I Wanna Go," the upbeat testimony of "Nobody But You Lord," and the straightforward ministry of "Somebody Needs a Miracle." But the best cut on this remarkable album is the closer, "Ziklag," a song drawn from the Old Testament. It puts the recognition of modern ills--drugs, poverty, prejudice--to a steadily advancing beat that underscores the chorus ("gonna pursue, overtake, conquer all") and the hope contained therein.

That same quartet tradition pops up in bluegrass, greatly altered by instrumentation but still recognizable in vocals and spirit. It's no surprise, then, that a gospel album by one of the leading modern bluegrass acts, IIIrd Time Out, should contain tributes to that style both obvious ("Feed Me Jesus") and less direct (the Appalachian tune "Everybody's Gonna Have a Wonderful Time Up There," an a cappella number that verges on doo-wop at times). IIIrd Tyme's singing and playing fit together with a tightness that would delight a cabinetmaker, and, like the Supreme Angels, they serve notice to their genre that the bar is being raised.

--Matt Weitz

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Matt Weitz