Find a quiet place and lose yourself in the wonder of Rich Mullins' Brother's Keeper. Far from being a summer driving album - one to jam with down the highway, windows open and top down - Brother's Keeper is a mellow, reflective, front porch kind of recording, great for pondering and relaxing as the sun sinks over the rim of the horizon.
Joining Mullins is a reconfigured Ragamuffin Band; featuring Beaker, Jimmy A, and Rick Elias, veterans with "former muffin experience," as well as the talented Phil Madeira, Lee Lundgren, and Aaron Smith. As always, Mullins has created an infectious blend of pop and folk with eclectic Appalachian, country, and heartland influences. Although the project retains the Ragamuffin Band as its base, it is less of a musicians' project than A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band. Mullins does not try to impress us with the dark and luxurious textures that set the stage on his recent projects. Here he offers a simple (though not simplistic) composition as the foundation for his painting. The effect, however, is just as powerful.
Let Mercy Lead is profound in its auditory and intellectual impact. Utilizing a strong guitar base, both acoustic and electric, with bass, drum, and B-3 organ augmentation, Mercy constructs a harmony as catchy as any Mullins has crafted. Written for Beaker's young son, Aidan, Mercy challenges us to accept the compassion and forbearance that God provides to aid us in completing "...the race that takes us way beyond all our trials and all our failures." Gone from prominence is the dulcimer, which has been Mullins' signature since 1989's Never Picture Perfect; only on Eli's Song do we hear its subtle, sweet strains.
Brother's Keeper's tone is drawn primarily from a variety of guitars, the B-3 organ, the accordion, and some unusual percussion arrangements and rare instrumentation (when's the last time you heard a lenophone or hooter?). Needless to say, this album doesn't suffer from the trite or vapid hooks that plague so much of today's pop music. Mullins gift for diversity of sound is evident in the inclusion of both the Jimmy Buffet-esque Eli's Song and the Charlie Daniels casted Quoting Deuteronomy to the Devil (the latter makes it onto the top-ten most interesting song titles list, alongside "The Maker of Noses"). Brother's Keeper is a quirky, witty, and warm addition to Mullins' catalog of projects.
Mullins has always been an artist who wrestled with God, and much of his work has revealed raw and passionate insights into the human condition. But much like Margaret Becker's transformation on Grace, it seems like Mullins also has reached a plateau of encouragement and serenity. Hatching of a Heart finds him transcending his erudite tendencies and relishing.
the strength that comes from friendship
...the warmth that comes from hope
...the love that time can't diminish
as well as giving God praise "for all that makes for the hatching of the heart." Cry the Name has the intensity that one has come to expect from Mullins, yet his call is tempered with the knowledge of God's abiding love:
I cannot cling to the shadows again
So here on this altar tonight
I lay every dream, I've ever dreamt
To burn in the fire He lights
And I cry out the name of the One who loves me.
This is not just a departure in sound for Mullins, but a departure in mood as well.
If you're looking for an album that picks up where A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band left off, you're not going to find that in Brother's Keeper. But if you're willing to follow Rich Mullins on his trek to this new vista, I think you'll agree that the peaceful, pensive, and praiseworthy view was well worth the trip.
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