The Builder and the Architect stands out among the many contemporary recordings of hymns. The less is more production and the alternative folk-rock creates a pleasant sound. It's decidedly acoustic with some retro-sounding electric guitars and Garett Buell's creative percussion, which more than makes up for the absence of traditional drums.
Banjo playing that creeps along and what may be an accordion (but sounds like a recorder) give a couple of tracks a slight Sufjan Stevens feel. One of those--"Thy Mercy, My God"--is a remake from Sandra's early recording of the same song on Pilgrim Days: Indelible Grace II. This is a slower, more acoustic version that features some exquisite harmonizing between Sandra and husband, Derek Webb. It includes the addition of a chorus of "hallelujahs." This definitely surpasses her earlier version.
Sandra and Derek play most of the instruments on the recording, and Derek does a great job of providing understated harmonies. Others like Kenny Meeks lend their talents on select songs.
On "Grace Upon Grace," as Sandra and Derek sing the chorus, "Grace upon grace every sin repaired every void restored," it's as if I can here a smile in their voices. It's a moment of joy.
I'm so glad that I discovered Derek Webb and now Sandra McCracken. In early 2006, they along with a number of artists including Andrew Peterson, Jill Phillips and Randall Goodgame formed the Square Peg Alliance. Formed for mutual encouragement and support, it's a group of artists that individually are making great music. This hymns release is just one example of the fine work that they are doing.
It's not easy to take songs like hymns that are rich in theology and join them to compelling music, but Sandra has done a superb job. She has written most of the new music for these ten songs. Another plus is that almost all of these hymns are uncommon ones. The most recognizable is "Thy Mercy, My God." Aside from Isaac Watts, the authors of these texts are lesser known and include: Anne Steele, Joseph Hart, William Gadsby, and Puritan writers Thomas Kelly and John Stocker. The lyrics traverse the themes of grace, mercy and the love of God for fallen sinners.
Sandra wrote the lyrics to the last two songs, which are two of the strongest tracks and could pass for hymns. Not since Twila Paris have I heard anyone do such a good job of writing a contemporary hymn.
One of the highlights is the duet with Buddy Miller on "I Boast No More." Like so many of these songs, the music, vocals and production combine for a relaxed and delightful sound.
Listening to Sandra's lovely voice invites comparisons with Nichole Nordeman and Carolyn Arends. The soft and delicate side can be heard on the slower songs. It also lends itself well to the mostly mid-tempo folk arrangements found here.
It's a shame that this recording hasn't received more publicity. Aside from being one of the better hymn recordings, this is so well done that you forget you are listening to a collection of ancient texts.
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About the reviewer
Michael Dalton (mdalton)
I live in Eureka on the coast of Northern California. I am about 250 miles north of San Francisco. Our redwood trees are some of the tallest in the world. I like books, music, movies, … more
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Sandra McCracken's fourth release,The Builder And The Architecttakes her well-loved folk/rock songwriting and applies it to hymns. Whether it's old hymns texts with brand new music ("Thy Mercy," "Sovereign Grace") or new hymns ("Awake My Soul," "Rock Of Ages (When The Day Seems Long)"), Sandra's gentle touch delicately frames the often-weighty lyrics. Arrangements are sparse compared to her other records, with touches of cello, banjo, lap steel and upright bass giving the songs a shimmering fragility. "I Boast No More" features a performance by Grammy-nominated, Americana Music Association award-winning artist Buddy Miller.