The Whispers - Thankful (2009)

The Whispers
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There is an old joke in music circles that every past-prime rock star eventually ends up singing country music and every R&B artist ultimately moves to Gospel.  While there is fair cause for the cynicism around the rock/country connection (think Tom Jones Sings Country), with many R&B artists the idea of singing Gospel is a career-long itch that needs to be scratched, a return to their earliest days of public performance: singing in a church choir.  So, while it may not have seemed inevitable when they were singing ultra-sexy songs in the 80s like "Say You" and "In the Raw," it isn't entirely surprising that after four decades together singing contemporary R&B, the Whispers have released Thankful, the group's first full Gospel album.  

There is an old joke in music circles that every past-prime rock star eventually ends up singing country music and every R&B artist ultimately moves to Gospel.  While there is fair cause for the cynicism around the rock/country connection (think Tom Jones Sings Country), with many R&B artists the idea of singing Gospel is a career-long itch that needs to be scratched, a return to their earliest days of public performance: singing in a church choir.  So, while it may not have seemed inevitable when they were singing ultra-sexy songs in the 80s like "Say You" and "In the Raw," it isn't entirely surprising that after four decades together singing contemporary R&B, the Whispers have released Thankful, the group's first full Gospel album.  

The Whispers have clearly been contemplating a Gospel album for a few years, having put their toe in the water on the song "I Sing This Song For You" from their 2006 album For Your Ears Only.  And, as was the case with the silky "I Sing," Thankful is Gospel made on the Whispers own terms. In other words, don't be looking for organ-dominated songs or lots of call and response. Most R&B artists who have made the Gospel leap have done so by transforming their style to a traditional, even formulaic, Gospel sound; the Whispers have instead made the Good Word come to them, dressing spiritual messages in the kind of adult soulful style that the group has been using for at least two decades.  This is an urban adult contemporary album very similar to For Your Ears Only except that the quartet is singing to Jesus rather than to their honey.

For Thankful, the Whispers have brought in the production help of longtime associate Magic (leader of the group Unified Tribe) as well as Gospel heavyweight Fred Hammond and keyboardist Ralph Hawkins, Jr., and the various tracks of the album bear the distinct imprint of their producers.  Hammond's work is particularly strong, as he delivers the great ballad "One More Chance," one of the album's highlights, and the solid midtempos "This Is How I Feel" and "We Need You."  Magic's work is spottier, but includes two gems: the closing ballad "Living Without You" (previously included on Unified Tribe's On Purpose album) and the disc's first single, "For Thou Art With Me," a prototypical Whispers smooth soul track.  But the biggest surprise is the one cut brought to the party by Hawkins, the joyous "In the Name of Jesus," the closest thing to a traditional upbeat Gospel track and the album's finest, foot-stomping moment.

In addition to overall strong material and decent production (marred only by an overreliance on synthetic instrumentation instead of real horns and strings), the good news for Whispers fans is that the group members, now in their sixties, are in fantastic voice. Lead singers Walter and Scotty Scott sound virtually indistinguishable from their biggest hits of the 80s, and group harmonies are dead on throughout.  And they sound both convincing handling the spiritual material and energized by the change. 

So while there is still a tendency by some to smirk at a new country or Gospel album by a classic rock or soul artist, there is no need for cynicism with Thankful.  It is a welcome, well performed album of worship by one of the great groups of the past 40 years, updating the Whispers' message but relying on a classic soul sound that is, well, praiseworthyRecommended.

By Chris Rizik

 
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