Housefires III Album Review
HOUSEFIRES III releases later this week on August 12. Here's Dusty Wallace's take on it:
Just like their bio states, the overall feel is “underproduced,” but that by no means infers a lack of musicality or tightness amongst the band.
The beauty of this album for use in the church is the fact that musically, it is both accessible to the congregation and attainable to the worship team.
The sonic structure is warm and welcoming. There are no crazy diva-vocal-fills or dudes singing in a mezzo-soprano range. HOUSEFIRES demonstrates that their mission is to engage in moments with God, not to create some over-produced experience with lasers or fog machines.
On a very macro level, the entire album is like a self-contained night of worship. It opens gently; it closes gently.
Something I always look at when planning times of musical worship is the give and take of revelation and response. Meaning, are we revealing truths about our Triune God, and are we offering an appropriate response?
III does just that.
There is an even mix of personal language (I, me, etc.) and corporate (we, us) language. Personally, I don’t get too hung up on that, but I know churches go through seasons where they need one over the other and vice-versa. For them, “III” has a fair tasting of both.
One of the things I enjoyed about this album is how “live” it is. The average listener doesn't always realize how much re-tracking is done in the studio after the live recording happens: everything from vocals to drums gets dubbed over on a majority of those Dove Award-winning albums. HOUSEFIRES doesn’t seem to be piping in all those extra cheers, claps, and hallelujah shouts. And at first listen, no obvious overdubbing of the band. That alone makes my day.
If you’re a worship leader like me, whenever a radio-ready worship song opens with an arena of screams, I freak out thinking, “I can’t recreate that.” Thankfully, HOUSEFIRES III provides some realistic atmosphere that doesn’t necessitate an arena or a team full of Pro Tools experts.
The themes of this album are refreshing for a full-length recording in the fact that they don’t pigeon-hole themselves into being debate fuel. In other words, you don’t have to fret over “sloppy wet kisses” nor do you have to worry about explicit language in the latest Hillsong or Kings Kaleidoscope release. (Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think there is room for those things in faith-based art, but that’s another article for another day. ;)
Many of these themes are traditionally liturgical. There is a highlight of our brokenness, and God’s greatness. A sense of our desire, and an acknowledgment of God’s blessing. All of it is woven throughout with opportunity to respond by ascribing glory to God.
There is also a healthy diet of simple truth stating. For example, in "Life Is A Gift," the primary lyric is “life is a gift and the Giver is good.” All the exegesis you need for the song is right in the lyric. Intense metaphors in worship music can be beautiful, but they’re not always necessary. Sometimes, we need to sing over and over that God is good. III provides that opportunity.
How "congregational" is this? is always a tough question because all congregations are different. However, being as objective as I can be, melodically and lyrically, this album would score in the 90th percentile of accessibility in my book.
Let me break this down into two categories.
First things first, the melodies and vocal ranges aren’t reserved for the musically elite. As I mentioned before, there are no crazy vocal runs, and there are no mezzo-soprano ranged male melodies. The vocals are very enjoyable, very clear, and very unaffected (in the best of ways).
The rhythms aren’t crazy. Unless I’m missing something, the only song outside of common-time feel is “Great Is The Lord” in a tasteful 6. A set-list full of alternate time signatures or rubato type vocals can be disengaging to the congregation AND the band if you don’t spread them out. With few exceptions, both instrument and vocal pulses can be picked up quickly.
Although the sonically acoustic format of musical worship is not a brand new concept, churches that have a very Jesus Culture, Hillsong, or Lincoln Brewster style as their worship norm may have a learning curve with the format of III. However, if you are one of these churches, you should try a set like this every once in awhile to (quoting Ross King) have a “clear the stage” type of moment.
Another thing to keep in mind is that these songs are “vamp” heavy. There are lots of repeats and spontaneous-feeling refrains. If your church is not used to this, consider cutting some repeats. These vamps and spontaneous refrains are part of Housefires’ DNA. But even if you need to trim some of them down, the songs are still powerful and beautiful. (And please, do not fake the laughter on “Fill Me With The Fullness”. Please...for me. It worked here on the album, don’t force it at church.)
HOUSEFIRES found great common ground with their lyrics. The lyrics are meaningful, without needing a to pull up your dictionary app or Bible concordance.
They took Robin Williams’ advice from Dead Poets Society: they don’t use lazy words like very. And they also don’t overuse Bible-ese and Christian-ese vocabulary like “dry bones” or “runneth”. Their language is classic, but not antiquated.
I’m sure my mood dictated which tracks impacted me most on my first listen (and all 12 tracks have solid merits), but let me share my personal first-favorites.
Mountain To Valley
Of the 12 tracks on the album, only two are female-led. Mountain To Valley is the first. Kirby Kaple’s voice is so unique and smooth that she could sing the phone book and it would be enjoyable. When you couple that with lyrical dissonance of a line like “Plagued by your promises,” the artistic feeling of the “now and not yet” principle of the Kingdom is more fully understandable for a moment.
Yes and Amen
On my first listen of the album, I made a note that this would be the first track on the album to introduce to a congregation. Sometimes, the messages in our worship gatherings can leave us feeling a little undone. A song like this after a message or before a benediction reminds us (in lyric and melody) of the consistency, goodness, honesty, and faithfulness of the God we worship.
In closing, I’m glad this album exists. In a world full of overly-studio-manipulated “live” worship albums, it’s refreshing to hear one that sounds like it’s in a real room, at a real church, with real people worshiping.
These songs really sound like a team effort, not a rock-star worship leader with a backing band of studio pros. At the same time, the musical tightness is acclaim worthy. God is revealed and God is praised on this album. Nothing more. Nothing less. And that’s what we need the most.
Dusty Wallace is a worship leader and Media/Arts professional from central Ohio. He’s the owner/operator of Wallace Creative LLC, and cohost of The Plugged In Church podcast. You can find more about him at DustyWallace.org and on Twitter @DustyWallaceMUS.