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It is with great anticipation that I place the new Phatfish CD in the tray and press the correct button. But what’s this? Robert Palmer? Eric Satie?
Ah, I’m getting ahead of myself.
What we have here is a new release from a new line-up, having added two guitarists, a brother-in-law and two sister-in-law’s brother-in-law to the band. Confused? Now read on. So here I am expecting a flashback to the days of Alan Rose, with a lovely raw Les Paul rasp, plus the twang of Telecaster to help fill in any gaps. I’m also expecting Lou’s quality vocals, the best rhythm section in Christendom, Hammond pyrotechnics and class poetry to transport my soul toward the throne of God. Did I get my money’s worth?
Darkness into Light
The cover is clean and simple, with a stage lighting motif, (close-ups of par-cans) which is thematically sprinkled throughout by the crisp design of Jules Burt. God is the light in the darkness, which perhaps inspired her design. An inlay card pic of the band in a boozer, obviously waiting for their drinks order to arrive, shows all the boys in subdued dimness, but Lou sympathetically illumined, which is one way of looking at them.
The title track and opener combines Addicted to Love with Twain’s That Don’t Impress Me Much, but not in a crossover Country ‘n’ Western way. (And not in a way that makes me consider the men in the band doing that knee-waggling dance, either.) But the gusty power chords and B3 provide a instant hook for the content-packed lyric that Nathan’s songs always deliver. Great to hear the angry wasp solo guitar sound again (oh, how I’ve missed it!). It’s a song that will run and run, becoming a loved anthem for big crowds.
Whoops - I did it again
By contrast Who is like the Lord our God may catch a few congregations out, with the inclusion of a few surprise 2/4 bars, which means the lyrics come in a breath or two before you expect them. This gives the song a measure (half-measure, if you’re a yank) of urgency, and demonstrates the signature Phatfish grown-up approach to music, not settling for the easy listening middle ground beloved of so many also-ran worship-song writers, but prepared to give room for something a little inventive or unsettling. Lou’s double-tracked chorus vocals send me misty-eyed as I recognised a sound I love and will listen to for a long, long time.
But then something rather unexpected begins to happen. It’s positive, so, so welcome, almost forgotten and really very skilful. More of this later.
Lou’s close mike technique, clarity of diction and superb breath control are to the fore in Come to Jesus, a simple but powerful declaration of Christ’s ability and desire to be at the centre of our lives. The rhymes in verse two are much more satisfying to my ears (secure/poor/cure/more) and the middle eight is a magnificent piece of work, deserving perhaps of more development, restatement etc.
The good, surprising thing continues, quite splendidly.
Stairway to Heaven
Mission starts with a Led Zep-esque lick, drawing us into a song of grand scale and purpose. Big bee-vees turn up in the chorus, which is reminiscent of There is a Day, which is fair enough and probably a good idea.
The surprising thing – oh, I can’t keep this up, and there’s no reason to keep you in suspense any longer.
The addition of a pair of axemen made me anticipate the rasp of multiple humbuckers, with acoustic strums and sweet arpeggios and perhaps the occasional twang and maybe a grind or chug or even a rip, as well as the licks and powerchords. And all of those are delivered superbly. But what this album also features is quite excellent Sandeman keyboard work, brought once again to the fore, when I had not expected it to be there in such prominence. His Hammond chords are always reliable, but here are hugely interesting synth sounds, piano skills aplenty and interpretive additions and themes which add vast depth to the sense that this album has been produced with time, care, thought, not a little money and considerable musicianship.
Most Phatfish albums have a poetic highpoint beyond the already high standard of writing; often these are the Sandeman tracks. But Lou has penned If I have not love, a powerful creative reworking of part of 1 Corinthians 13, using contemporary examples of behaviour and attitudes which are empty without heart-expression of love. ‘I could look as though I’m listening or cry at my tv/But it really stands for nothing if it’s only serving me.’ Bertie supports alone to begin with, joined by acoustic guitar strumming and then by the rest of the band, which builds the song towards the bee-vee second chorus, middle eight and then an outstanding but disappointingly brief Lightning Seeds-esque piano solo.
Larger than Life
Sandeman theological heavyweightness powers through the anthemic Pardoned, with a huge chorus and glorious statements of Bible truth, accompanied by all-stops Hammond, thrash-all-you’re-worth tambourine and full-on bee-vees, as well as power chords and some understated guitar solos. Nathan’s controlled but appropriately busy work around the kit stands out as well.
Magnificently, we’re back to Shania, with a Man I feel like a Woman lick underpinning No one like our God. Again, it’s not in a bad way. It’s in a way that also reminds me strongly of Bryn Haworth’s No Time, but I suspect that’s just me and wasn’t intentional. I like the way the lick is given room to breathe between chorus and verse in ways that worship songs rarely allow, as they usually feel the need to rush on to the next chunk of worthy lyric. This song also has some experiment moog-style knob twiddling, which is shockingly fresh and inventive, although probably achieved by on-screen slider manipulation via an large black box of electronic trickery.
Strength of Character
A three-way collaboration between Jos, Lou & Nathan has generated There is Mercy, which drives along like a Road Trip soundtrack, complete with angry wasp. A great signature Phatfish tacit moment at 3’09’, with a big, explosive re-entry at 3’15”. Fantastically good song, with great musical strength. Will probably open many a festival worship time this summer, and perhaps long into the future.
Bertie stands out again in the tender worship song God you are my God, focussed on the Father’s compassionate understanding that life can be really tough. ‘Though the pain is strong/You give me strength to hope through the storm.’ Knowing about some of the agony Sarah-Jane (to whom the song is dedicated) has had to face this year makes this warm, almost haunting expression of genuine friendship without empty platitudes a moving piece. Hopefully other listeners will appreciate it as an expression of strength for the vulnerable. The piano motif throughout is strongly memorable.
A dotted rhythm and uncharacteristically empty verse arrangement sets up He watches over me. Luke’s almost-walking line is thoroughly engaging, and the middle eight is another triumph of fascinating chords with worshipful expressions of delight. And then, disastrously, it’s over… I was left wanting more, which must be a good thing. So I listened again and enjoyed it even more the next time around.
There’s a maturity about this album that reflects the complicated journey on which the guys have been recently, yet their dependency on God and joy in his mercy shine through all the sadness. It’s not Bride of Heavenbound, understandably, but it’s right up there among the top two Phatfish abums. And in the top five worship albums of all time; oh yes, it’s that good.
Top Five Worship Albums of All Time
1 Phatfish Heavenbound
2 Kate Simmonds One Day
3 David Fellingham In Power Resplendent
4 Phatfish In Jesus
5 Israel & New Breed Real