Fred Hammond - United Tenors: Hammond, Hollister, Roberson, Wilson (2013)

Fred Hammond
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United Tenors is song over song one of the best albums you’ll hear this year, particularly of the Urban Gospel/Christian Contemporary set. So, it’s a curious thing for an album to be one of the best heard of the year thus far and still somehow be a wee bit of a disappointment too, at least initially. This is gospel on par with the best of the Commissioned catalog, for which comparisons are impossible not to make with Hammond so clearly dominating the helm. United Tenors overflows with fluid melodies, heartfelt lyrics, hip contemporary production that stays age-appropriate, and awesomely emotional performances that will surely have some in trouble weeping and rocking (gospel tends to have that effect among believers). So, what’s the disappointment? The criminal underuse of the individual solo talents of some of the best male voices of this generation, outside of choral backdrops and trading licks, however beautifully sung.

United Tenors is song over song one of the best albums you’ll hear this year, particularly of the Urban Gospel/Christian Contemporary set. So, it’s a curious thing for an album to be one of the best heard of the year thus far and still somehow be a wee bit of a disappointment too, at least initially. This is gospel on par with the best of the Commissioned catalog, for which comparisons are impossible not to make with Hammond so clearly dominating the helm. United Tenors overflows with fluid melodies, heartfelt lyrics, hip contemporary production that stays age-appropriate, and awesomely emotional performances that will surely have some in trouble weeping and rocking (gospel tends to have that effect among believers). So, what’s the disappointment? The criminal underuse of the individual solo talents of some of the best male voices of this generation, outside of choral backdrops and trading licks, however beautifully sung. With the possible exception of “Never A Day” which gives Dave Hollister considerable front man time, there is nary a whole solo showcase for anyone except maybe Hammond. Which when you have home-runners like Eric Roberson, Dave Hollister, and Brian Courtney Wilson on the docket, boggles the mind.

Not that these exceptional gentleman don’t often trade off the leads, as on the Caribbean tinged “I’m Reminded” or the head-banger “Everybody Get Up.” They do. Belting to their hearts content for the few bars each is handed the microphone and kills it. It will be interesting to hear how individual fans of R&B singer Eric Roberson, soul and gospel crooner Dave Hollister, and young gospel star Brian Courtney Wilson will feel about hearing so little at length that demarcates some of the otherwise most distinguishable voices around. Fred Hammond fans, on the other hand, will cheer, since there is little doubt whose product this really is. Even more than Commissioned, this is clearly Hammond’s show in every way.

That said, there is something wonderfully full circle about younger singers getting the chance to sing with their legend, Fred Hammond, whose vocal technique so undeniably influenced each man’s sound, especially Dave Hollister’s phrasing. As a supergroup, Hammond’s stamp on the other gentlemen’s voice makes their choral blend effortless, as though it were fated that they should sing together. On, “Never A Day,” one of the album’s tour de forces, when Hammond swaps belts with the fellas, the tonal differences are ones of mere shading. Unlike Commissioned, whose harmonic trickery and awe-inspiring technique influenced not one, but two generations of melisma-rich R&B and gospel quartets and quintets, the United Tenors keep these harmonies close and straight-forward, letting the melody and lyric lead the way on dream worship ballads like “Here In Our Praise.” There is a purity in this approach, where the clarity of these men’s soothing tones and timbre, many whose natural is as much baritone as tenor, can wrap a listener up in some of the easiest melodies in gospel or soul.

Lyrically the songs are heavy on worship and survival testimonials with direct mentions of a Christian God -- no diluted inspirational numbers here. Only the baroque “Come On Let’s Pray” wraps the knuckles of the wayward sinner and even that is light on rebuke and heavy on instruction. This occasion is one of rejoicing.

Largely written and almost exclusively produced by Fred Hammond with co-production credits to Derek “DC” Clark, Harold “Shun” Martin, Ira Dean,  Nicholas Humes, and Calvin Rodgers & Phillip Feaster, the production is straight out of the late 90s, early 2000s urban adult contemporary playbook, but nothing feels dated or niche. Sumptuous is the approach for Spanish guitar ballads like “My Heart Is Yours” and steppers cuts like the “That’s The Only Way To Love” and “We Worship You.” There is a welcome humor and camaraderie to their interludes, and a playfulness to the only overtly contemporary urban radio production on the project, with “My God Is Real,” even with its vocoder overlays coating these otherwise flawless crooners’ voices. A blip, depending on your tastes, that is quickly recovered by the team of Hammond, Rodgers and Feaster on a classic doo wop ballad, “I Need You,” that could’ve found a home on the great albums of Dru Hill, 112, or Jodeci, if not for it’s devotedly inspirational content.

After the first complete listen, the fact that your go-to singer out of the group doesn’t get that solo shine, passes, and only the greatness of their collaboration remains. Better than the last two solo offerings by Hammond, including his quasi-secular God, Love and Romance, United Tenors returns the multi-platinum, multi-Dove, Stellar, and Grammy-award winner to the classic form of the gold-selling Purpose By Design and Something ‘Bout Love. It also may inspire gospel fans of Hammond and the 2010 Dove nominated New Artist of the Year, Brian Courtney Wilson, to investigate the exemplary secular catalogs of multi-Grammy-nominated Eric Roberson and the gold-selling Dave Hollister, formerly of R&B groups Blackstreet and Force One Network. At their best, regardless of genre, these stars of soul have separately all sung about nothing but the goodness and trials of love. Now together, the ultimate love gets to reign supreme. Highly Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 
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