Album Review :
Jimmy Needham - The Hymns Sessions Vol. 1

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Artist: Jimmy Needham
Title: The Hymns Sessions Vol. 1
Label: NeedHim Music
Release Date: 9/10/13
Reviewer: Jonathan Andre

Tracklisting:

  1. Christos Anesti
  2. The Gospel
  3. Rock of Ages
  4. Come Thou Fount
  5. Great is Thy Faithfulness (feat. Kevin Jones)
  6. How Great Thou Art (feat. Trip Lee)
  7. Holy, Holy, Holy (feat. Shane and Shane)
  8. Joyful, Joyful
  9. It is Well
  10. It is Finished

Hymns have always been fun to hear and sing along to, ever since they were written at various times throughout history. From ‘Amazing Grace’ to ‘How Great Thou Art’, as well as ‘Blessed Assurance’, ‘The Solid Rock’, ‘Jesus Paid It All’ and more recently ‘In Christ Alone’; hymns, and often timeless ones, are able to provoke the hearts of many throughout their own walk with Christ, and songs which truly stand the test of time are ones that shatter all preconceptions of it and come to us during a moment when songs, and quite often God-breathed songs, are needed the most. The most famous hymn (and might I also add, the most famous song ever) ‘Amazing Grace’ came at a time when its author, John Newton, turned his eyes to Christ after he was convicted of the Lord’s presence during the slave trade in the 1600s. ‘It is Well’ was written by Horatio Spafford during the 1800s, and was written after his own 4 daughters passed away suddenly and without much warning. All throughout history, the songs that are borne out of hardship and loss and hurt are at times the ones that impact listeners the most throughout time. Now fast forward to the 21st century, and hymns are still having an impact. From Avalon and Selah, to Bart Millard, Leigh Nash and Out of Eden; hymn projects are seemingly the way to go if you want to take a trip down memory lane and hear all the hymns re-imagined, especially the ones you’ve grown up on that have shaped your faith to where you are today. Add Jimmy Needham to the list of artists who have followed this trend and is now releasing his first hymns project album (note the title of the album, The Hymns Sessions Vol. 1) this year, featuring renditions of some of my favourites like ‘How Great Thou Art’, ‘Come Thou Fount’ and ‘Holy, Holy Holy’. Having a motown and blues music vibe that he has so effortlessly done well and conveying to listeners throughout his previous albums, this newly independent artist’s portrayal of 10 songs (two of which are original ‘hymns’) that are dear to his heart is a reminder that hymns cannot necessarily be contained to just 10 tracks, and even though there is no ‘Fairest Lord Jesus’, ‘Just As I Am’, ‘The Wonderful Cross’ or ‘I Surrender All’; the album still boasts some great hymns for reflective worship. Releasing on the same day as the anticipated album release of Restart from the Newsboys, as well as British/American acoustic indie worship band The Sonflowerz’s new EP Love Walked In; Jimmy’s album is one to check out and purchase if you are a fan of his previous music (and other similar artists like Chris August, Salvador or Newworldson), or if you love hymns projects with the artist’s personal music and lyrical twist!

With The Hymns Sessions being created because fans pledged to Jimmy’s kickstarter campaign for his previous album Clear the Stage and exceeded a certain amount, we are met with 7 hymns, 2 original tracks (that easily fit right in and sound very hymn-like) and one opening 1 minute track sung in Greek. While not necessarily the most famous or beloved hymns that everyone remembers, these songs remind us that there are some great hymns that still fly under the radar to this day. With the album’s first recognisable hymn to listeners being ‘Rock of Ages’ at track No. 3; Jimmy utilises his folk/jazz/blues background to create a melody infused in that type of genre, complete with hand clicks, a low deep thudding bass, as well as some ‘woahhh’ moments spread throughout the song to deliver a swaying and funk kind of feeling. While I myself may not be that familiar with ‘Rock Of Ages’ even to begin with, the song that Jimmy presents is a great rendition of a track that reminds us that it is in Christ that we place our security, the rock in which our faith and foundation is firmly planted on. With the message of the melody alluding to the timelessness, of Christ but also of hymns in general (if you want to extend the message that far); Jimmy has given us a modernised track that’s ought to be listened to by everyone who loves Jimmy and his soul-jazz musical influence and how it seeps through and infuses each track that he records and performs. Also receiving a makeover (even if it’s ever so slight) is ‘Come Thou Fount’. While staying true to the lyrical progression of the song, speaking about how God the fount of blessing can pour out His love and grace upon us during the moments in our lives when we need it the most; it is the music backdrop of the melody that enhances the song and atmosphere of it 10 fold, providing us with another 60s influence track full of prominent piano solo sections, a deep bass line and plenty of brass instruments to cast our minds back to how music was performed during those days. A throwback to the times when Ray Charles and Billie Holliday were creating music with similar styles; Jimmy’s renditions of both ‘Come Thou Fount’ and ‘Rock of Ages’ give us hymns that, while not organised in a pop-radio friendly way; delivers very much so creatively to place both of these tracks as some of my favourite renditions of hymns ever (from any artist)!

‘Joyful, Joyful’, a song that I first heard in Sister Act 2, is arguably one of the most recognised hymn melodies, since it’s set to the tune of ‘Ode for Joy’, written by Beethoven himself (in a similar way, ‘What Child is This’, placed to the classical music piece ‘Greensleaves’, is arguably the most known for the melodies and jingles on the ice cream trucks that drive around giving people ice cream on a hot day). However, as Jimmy re-imagines it, the melody that most people remember is thrown out the door and replaced with a slowed down motown inspired light electric guitar riff emphasis, complete with a swinging music atmosphere and an added chorus in how Jimmy proclaims that ‘…You make me joyful, You make me joyful, our hearts are so full, so full…’ The following track ‘It is Well’ is possibly the only track that has stayed the most original-like (other than slowing down the track tremendously and only having an acoustic guitar and a sea of backing vocalists, and while I can’t deny Jimmy’s passion in the song, the upbeat atmosphere that each of the other songs possess seems to be lacking with this track. Not to be listened to if you’re very tired (in fact, this track will do a great job in rocking toddlers to sleep with), this solemn and reflective track is perfect if you want to indeed sleep or even reflect upon God’s goodness with your eyes closed. And while another track that can put people to sleep would probably be the first track ‘Christos Anesti’, a slow track with the organ and Jimmy singing in another language (possibly Greek), Jimmy has once again delivered something that’s out of our comfort zone in terms of what we hear from Jimmy or any of the soul/pop/blues artists nowadays as well. With the 1 minute track roughly being translated into a declaration of praise as we give God the glory for giving us grace abundantly; this is a unique way to start an album full of moments of nostalgia and reinvention, as listeners could possibly discover some hymns for the first time.

Collaborations have always been enjoyable to listen to, whether it is ‘Empty’ (Dan Haseltine and Matt Hammitt), ‘Unfailing Love’ (Chris Tomlin and Steven Curtis Chapman), ‘Favourite Song’ (TobyMac and Jamie Grace), or ‘I’m With You’ (Nichole Nordeman and Amy Grant). Providing us with three collaborations on his hymns album, Jimmy’s choice of collaborative partner provides us with a unique, different and enjoyable representation of these songs, depending on who the collaborative partner is and the musical influences each person wants to place into the song. ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’, a duet with Kevin Jones, a great friend of Jimmy’s, is a reflective song declaring God’s faithfulness over us and around circumstances and situations, and while the only rendition of this song that I’ve heard is from gospel singer Israel Houghton; Jimmy’s rendition is full of emotion, soul and passion. A tad on the slower side, both Kevin and Jimmy provide great harmonies to declare collectively and individually to God about how ‘…Great is Thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see…’ Also providing a stirring duet with duo Shane and Shane in ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’, an acoustic reflective rendition of a song that declares God to be holy and elevated above any other, we are presented with an acoustic and ethereal moment of praise as the reflective emphasis of these bunch of songs continue. But what is truly remarkable and a standout on the album is Jimmy’s collaboration with rap artist Trip Lee on ‘How Great Thou Art’. Completely re-imagined with verses thrown out and replaced by Trip rapping the verses added to Jimmy declaring out the chorus of proclaim God to be great; it does seem a little miss-mash from first listen, but while just like how Lecrae enhances every track that he raps on (‘Forgiveness’, ‘Awake My Soul’, ‘Ready or Not’ and ‘I Will Find You’), Trip’s presence on a song that has touched many listeners throughout the years is something that will give the melody some freshness and invigorating atmosphere as we hear a song redone, projected more towards the younger generation of listeners, yet any listener of any age and any lover of any Christian music genre can still enjoy both Jimmy and Trip on ‘How Great Thou Art’. Well done to both Trip and Jimmy for creating my favourite song (other than the original tracks) on The Hymns Sessions Vol. 1.

‘The Gospel’ is a song written by Jimmy himself and originally placed on his first album Speak way back in 2005, and while the verses of the song are still the same, Jimmy writes a new chorus to make the song sound more hymn-like. Together with the verses that declare the crucial importance of the gospel, we are invited to declare and proclaim the Lord with the heartfelt and powerful words ‘…bless the Lord, bless the Lord, for my sin was black as night, bless His name, I’m not the same, the Gospel washed me white…’ Enhancing the song and thereby elevating the song from just a song to hymn-like status; the newly improved ‘The Gospel’ promotes its guitars, drums and a more polished sound. With his written hymns feeling just as home as the traditional ones, it is the song ‘It is Finished’, also written by Jimmy, that sums up the gospel in a nutshell, and a great way to finish the album. Showing us with very intense and vivid imagery about what Christ has done for us, and how ‘…it is finished, it is finished, tetelesti…’, Jimmy poignantly declares God’s worth throughout the song. With a violin and a stanza of ‘The Solid Rock’ sung at the end of the medley, it is a great song to end the album with, and a constant reminder of our worth to Christ for Him to die and declare ‘it is finished’ for us to be reconciled with Him. Well done Jimmy for such a poetic and powerful song to reflect upon.

Overall: Releasing on the same day as Newsboys’s Restart can seem like a difficult task, and frankly, it is. If an artist can’t ‘compete’ with others on their label, if they can’t ‘compete’ with other album releases on that particular day, or even in the month or year, their career can seem to take more time to get off the ground than others who have a hit overnight. With Jimmy’s release, The Hymns Sessions Vol. 1 is an album that’s great if you enjoy hymns, yet also great if you enjoy 50s and 60s music as well. Created entirely through kickstarter, Jimmy’s ability to create what he wants without a label works quite well for the album, and is one of the many positives for an album that’s certainly one of the standout albums in September, alongside releases from Newsboys and The City Harmonic so far. Still only in his late 20s, Jimmy’s heartfelt music is certain to continue to inspire and encourage listeners in years to come. With a hopeful The Hymns Sessions Vol. 2 in the future, expect to see more hymns redone by Jimmy, as this album arguably rivals Jadon Lavik’s Roots Run Deeper as my favourite hymns album within the last few years. Well done Jimmy for such a poignant and compelling album that’ll hopefully encourage listeners to rediscover hymns and their childhood within these 10 tracks.

RIYL: Chris August, newworldson, Salvador, Shawn McDonald

Buy the Album: iTunes/Amazon mp3

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