Album Review :
Casting Crowns - The Acoustic Sessions Vol. 1

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Artist: Casting Crowns
Title: The Acoustic Sessions Vol. 1
Label: Reunion Records
Release Date: 1/22/13
Reviewer: Jonathan Andre

Tracklisting:

  1. If We are the Body
  2. East To West
  3. American Dream
  4. Who Am I
  5. Here I Go Again
  6. Delivered
  7. Somewhere in the Middle
  8. Set Me Free
  9. Only You
  10. Praise You in the Storm

One of today’s artists that have certainly divided fans and critics alike as many have either enjoyed or disliked their music over the past decade or so, Casting Crowns’s presence within the Contemporary Christian Music industry is as very much present and crucial now as it was when they first released their debut album Casting Crowns back in 2003. Garnering plenty of critical and commercial acclaim, inclusive of various Gold and Platinum awarding albums; it is their heart for student ministry that have grounded these part-time musicians, part-time youth pastors to accomplish the feats they have achieved, producing albums that speak to the heart of many listeners around the world. With lead singer Mark Hall one of the most passionate lead singers I know when it comes to expressing their faith in concerts, Mark reminds us through the band’s work (even more so in their latest album Come to the Well), that …Your friends aren’t the well. They aren’t always going to do the right thing or be there for you. You draw from Jesus…’ At times in-your-face with songs that hit hard emotionally to the core of our emotional being; there is no doubt of their much-needed presence within the music industry, even if their music seems a little ‘safe’ in the eyes of some. Winning countless Dove Awards throughout the 2000s to become, in my opinion, the CCM ‘Group of the Decade’; these men and women from Florida (but now based in Georgia) are now releasing their brand-new 2013 first acoustic album fittingly titled The Acoustic Sessions Vol. 1, with the assumption of a possible Vol. 2 towards the end of 2013. With 8 rerecorded acoustic melodies from the first half of Casting Crowns’s career, as well as 2 new songs (that have the potential of being on their new studio record); these 5 men and 2 women have decided to stray from the safe that many have claimed they have been doing with their music, and move into the uncharted territory of acoustic songs. The result is a mixed bag of acoustic songs that are a certain purchase if you enjoy their previous work- with some songs performing one better than the original, yet other songs seemingly tired and out of place on an album that many may question the track order or even the tracks themselves.

‘Who Am I?’ is possibly the most famous song by Casting Crowns, releasing in 2003 on their debut album and speaking about the worth of ourselves in light of how God sees us. As we are reminded through the chorus that we are ‘…a flower quickly fading, here today and gone tomorrow, a wave tossed in the ocean, a vapour in the wind…’; our perspective on the value of our life changes, from being the me-centric person that’s always selfish and approval seeking to understanding that our lives are indeed not our own, that any moment can be our last and that in spite of our fleeting existence, God calls each of us by name. With the strings, keyboards and keyboardist Megan Garrett singing the song instead of Mark (who sang on the original recording); the acoustic version of the popular song is almost as great as the original song, if not more emotional, comforting and poignant. With Casting Crowns starting to mix up the music as they employ different musical elements as well as altering singers, the acoustic rendition ‘Who Am I?’ is a certain highlight on an album that may serve more for those who are personally avid fans of the group rather than newer listeners of the CCM powerhouse band.

Both ‘East to West’ and ‘Somewhere in the Middle’, originally from the 2007 album The Altar and the Door (my personal favourite album from Casting Crowns) shine as acoustic tracks, with the theme of God casting our sins away as ‘…far as the east is from the west, cos I don’t have to see the man I’ve been come rising up in me again…’ (‘East to West’); as well as God finding us in the moments when we may feel like we’re stuck in the middle, of where we are and where we want to be, or between ‘…a whisper and a roar, somewhere between the altar and the door, somewhere between contented peace and always wanting more, somewhere in the middle You’ll find me…’ (‘Somewhere in the Middle’) One of my favourite songs on The Altar and the Door, we are shown a piano-only melody in ‘Somewhere in the Middle’, giving us a clear and emotional reminder of how God has come to us so that we don’t have to face the confusion and uncertainly alone when it comes to facing decisions whenever we’re in the ‘middle’. With both ‘East to West’ and ‘Somewhere in the Middle’ some of my favourite acoustic renditions along with ‘Who Am I?’; well done Mark and the band for these great song choices and thought-provoking melodies.

‘If We are the Body’, ‘American Dream’ and ‘Here I Go Again’ are all on The Acoustic Sessions Vol. 1 (originally on the 2003 album Casting Crowns). Each of these songs present pressing issues that need to be thought about in today’s society, from asking that if we are really the body of Christ and sons and daughters of God, then why do many newcomers (or maybe even those who have been going to church for a while) feel like they are being judged for what they are doing or how they are acting (‘If We are the Body’); and reminding everyone that the coveted American Dream may not be as cracked up as it may seem- ‘…for he works all day and cries alone at night, he thought things will get better, looks like he’s running out of time…’ (‘American Dream’); to asking God to help in witnessing to a friend who has slipt away Himself (‘Here I Go Again’). However, their acoustic translations do not really live up to the hype of the original recordings, with each melody feeling like more of a carbon copy of the original song, with just a few instruments less than the overpowering guitars and percussion. Not that these songs are poorly written by any means, it’s just that sometimes listening to each of these songs, guilt can set into people’s heart as they identify with each of these personas, either being the person who has judged during church or is being judged (and is guilty for not doing anything about it), they are worried, afraid and ashamed by actually pursuing the American Dream, or they feel all the weight of responsibility and pressure as they witness to their friends and/or family. Listening to a song should inspire and promote a positive response, yet frankly, these three songs may possibly do the opposite for some people. Perhaps acoustical versions of ‘Voice of Truth’ or ‘Praise You With the Dance’ may have been more appropriate for an acoustical album setting, especially when the focus of the album is on the first three albums of their career as well as 2 additional recordings.

‘Praise You in This Storm’, alongside ‘Who Am I?’, is one of Casting Crowns’s most celebrated and awe-inspiring songs giving us a Job-like reminder of how we should continue to praise God regardless of circumstances in our lives- yet not necessarily praising Him because of the bad things, but rather understand that whenever trials and tribulations come in our lives, God will still use them to further His glory and our good. Upbeat, passionate and emotional through all the acoustics, with the tempo and mood of the song never straying from the original recording, I may have would’ve liked a little more ingenuity with the song, maybe inserting an extended instrumental bridge within the middle of the song. ‘Set Me Free’ may be an obscure song choice from Lifesong to be rerecorded acoustically (I may have thought ‘Lifesong’ or ‘Father Spirit Jesus’ were more popular) but as I listen to this string and percussion heavy remix like melody about someone asking God to set them free from ‘…the chains holding me, is anybody out there hearing me?…’; I am pleased at the musical arrangement, as well as being bold enough to place a lesser-known song on the album rather than a song that many listeners may expect. I’ll admit, I hadn’t really heard the song fully even on Lifesong, however, once I was able to listen to this acoustical rendition, I found myself enjoying this song more and more- ‘Set Me Free’ is certainly one of the most underrated songs on Lifesong.

Casting Crowns have also given listeners two brand new melodies in ‘Delivered’ and ‘Only You can Satisfy’; and while both are great musically (‘Delivered’ employs an acoustic guitar riff together with a country-style musical atmosphere, and ‘Only You Can Satisfy’ a stripped down light guitar song with great harmonies from Megan Garrett); the themes of ‘Only You Can Satisfy’ seem to have been sung about before from other artists on other albums, and while it’s great to listen to Mark sing about how he longs for Christ to ‘…hold me in Your arms and never let me run away…’; it was ‘Delivered’ that really gave me a great impression, with Megan singing about how Christ saved us and for us to rest in Him. Our deliverance from sin and death ought not to be taken lightly, and ask I listen to this humble track, an acoustic rendition of a song written for the 2001 independent album, Casting Crowns are able to bring a fresh and enthusiastic praise song that is certain to be one of their song highlights in years to come. Well done Mark and the rest of the band for such invigorating and moving new songs!

Overall: Over their 10 year career on Reunion Records (with an additional few years as an independent band), Casting Crowns has continued to give listeners uplifting melodies and encouraging songs of affirmation, motivation, hopefulness and comfort as we listen to the Father and His love sing over us. Though many songs did not make the 10-song list, from ‘Lifesong’, ‘I Know You’re There’, ‘Voice of Truth’, ‘Father Spirit Jesus’, ‘Does Anybody Hear Her’, as well as newer songs ‘Courageous’, ‘To Know You’ and ‘Glorious Day’; expect these fan favourites to be on The Acoustic Sessions Vol. 2 whenever that releases in the future. A must purchase if you are a fan of contemporary pop, this album certainly lets us view the Casting Crowns songs we’ve come to know and love in a new light. With such a popular last studio album both commercially and critically, I can’t wait for the next studio release after Come to the Well, one of my favourite albums from the Georgian band. Well done guys for such a unique album. Looking forward to new music in 2013 and beyond!

RIYL: Chris Tomlin, MercyMe, Aaron Shust, Kari Jobe

Buy the Album: iTunes/Amazon mp3

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