Album Review: Various Artists — Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us
Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us covers a large swath of musical ground, from the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ raucous string band sound on traditional tune “Lights in the Valley” to Mat Kearney’s sleepy pop to jazz guitarist John Scofield’s gorgeous instrumental version of “Peace in the Valley.” But for all its variety, the Kickstarter-funded compilation is built around a singular message, inscribed by producer Phil Madeira on the CD packaging: “There are those who hope, like I do, that God is love. And what is love but a mother holding up a lantern waiting for her children to come home?” It’s a message worth hearing, especially when it’s delivered as beautifully as it is on this record.
With the exception of the title track, on which he sings lead, Madeira, a singer, songwriter — he wrote or co-wrote nine of Mercyland’s 12 songs) — and multi-instrumentalist who’s also a member of Emmylou Harris’ touring band, stays in the background, contributing guitar, accordion, organ, and the occasional harmony vocal while letting the rest of the all-star cast take center stage. Harris and Buddy Miller are, to the surprise of absolutely no one, their usual superlative selves, while The Civil Wars and Dan Tyminski provide Mercyland with a couple of unexpected moments: the former by sounding more vibrant and engaging on album opener “From This Valley” than they do on their own records, and the latter by eschewing bluegrass for footstomping roots rock on “Light of Your Love,” which is perhaps the best of Mercyland’s dozen tracks.
As its subtitle suggests, Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us is a lovely listening experience for those who may not normally seek out gospel music or organized religion. At its heart, the album’s guiding philosophy of love and universal brotherhood reminds us of the ways in which music and spirituality, at their best, can connect us.
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