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SIGNS OF LIFE (1996)
Signs of Life - Click to view!One of the absolutely best singer/songwriters in contemporary Christian music is back with not only a new haircut, but a new style of music that redefines what he's all about. Steven Curtis Chapman's new style is self described as "early rock and blues", but I'd say there's at least a little country and pop music on this album. Signs of Life is, as Steven says, "The record I've always wanted to make." The first track, "Lord of the Dance", is a heavy guitar rock tune that says I am nothing in this dance of life without Jesus Christ, the Lord of the dance (listen to the percussion - it's Steven's own invention - he's banging on the top of his guitar!). "Children of the Burning Heart" speaks of our need for a passion to carry the message of Jesus Christ to this world and, like the country/ blues/rock tune "The Walk" says, we can spread the Word by the way we live our lives every day. The title cut, "Signs of Life", says the things in life that really matter are compassion and love, which we can only give away when we receive them from God. Steven Curtis returns to his old (but still cool) 70's pop style in "Let Us Pray", a song which reminds us to not only pray, but to live what we're praying. The somewhat haunting song "Free" speaks of the freedom we've been given through Jesus Christ, while the heavy guitar cut "Only Natural" gives us encouragement that the Holy Spirit has empowered us to rise above what is only natural. The rock tune "Rubber Meets the Road" says "It's time to put in motion everything you know / This is where the rubber meets the road." The relatively quiet song "What Would I Say" tells the touching story of SCC's grandfather who died in war. Steven's good friend Geoff Moore teams up with him for "Land of Opportunity", which says "I can live like a prisoner to all that could be / But a heart that is simple is a heart that's set free." And for a grand finale, Steven Curtis brings us the inspirational ballad "Hold On to Jesus", which tells us not only to hold on to Jesus, but let go of the things of this earth which won't last. Signs of Life is not just an album. It is Steven Curtis Chapman's statement of beliefs, as he himself says of the album, "I wanted to take a look at where my faith had begun and where my faith is taking me. Was Christ making a difference in my attitudes and actions? When people look at me, do they see someone going through the motions of living or do they really see signs of life?" It is with that attitude SCC wrote the songs on Signs of Life, and listeners everywhere will reap the rewards of this spectacular effort.
- Josh M. Shepherd

THE MUSIC OF CHRISTMAS (1995)
The Music of Christmas - Click to view!None can deny the power of Steven Curtis' heartfelt, intelligent songwriting and his 100% guitarist drive, from the early days of "Faithful Too" to his semi-alternative pace on his current Signs Of Life (not to mention his soundtrack stuff, new singles on Greatest Hits and the new album). So how does he do on The Music of Christmas? Incredible. This is my fourth season with this disc and it just never escapes my player. Never content to be wrapped up in a box, Steven opted to mix in his six originals and musically rejuvenated versions (by which I mean completely different melody and chorus) of "O Come, Emmanuel," "Angels We Have Heard On High," (an upbeat remix with an electric solo) and "O Come All Ye Faithful." So how does that work, you wonder--changing classic carols to fit your pop sound? If it was anyone else, they'd ruin the holiday experience by changing melodies, but SCC is in full form here and you've got the tune and are singing with him by the second chorus. The opening "Hark!/title track" medley is a real highlight of the disc, crescendoing up and up with the London Session Orchestra and American Boychoir providing that warm holiday touch, as they do throughout this rare jewel of a holiday album. The kings of Christian pop, Steven and Michael W. Smith, join forces on "Our God is With Us," a driving keyboard/guitar power pop track that really grows on you. despite hearing it fifty times, "This Baby" has never grown old, a track on Jesus' sacrifice to save us all through His birth in a stable. Instrumentally, Steven Curtis Clapton (or is that Chapman?) shines like the sun on the driving acoustic medley "Interlude" and the equally impressive "Carol Of the Bells." His commitment to help the needy is apparent on the poignant original "Christmas is All In the Heart," with the verse "In a one bedroom apartment, on the humble side of town ~ There stands a little Christmas tree--looks a lot like Charlie Brown's..." You can't go wrong with The Music of Christmas.
- Josh M. Shepherd

HEAVEN IN THE REAL WORLD (1994)
Heaven in the Real World - Click to view!A defining album in Steven's career, I remember loving Heaven in the Real World long before I actually got my own copy. On the same level as his current hit, [ SPEECHLESS ], this record took Steven to new levels with rock muscle and hope-filled songs. It begins with some dramatic soundbite splicing of news reports on terrorism and wars, hanging on Steven's friend Chuck Colson asking "Where is the hope?" Steven proceeds with the title track, a pop landmark that turns around Colson's question to say, "He is the hope ~ He is the peace that will make this life complete. Mixing an almost African beat with a hectic pop/rock progression, we are reminded that Christ is the "King of the Jungle" as Steven chants "K - I - N - G...", a gospel choir sings "Lord, we praise You," and stellar guitar works the melody deep into your mind. With the premise that "it seems ~ conscience has gone the way of the dinosaur," Steven plays on a bold metaphor of "Dancing With the Dinosaur" with a beat that'll get you dancing. "The Mountain" slows down Heaven for the first time, as the song remembers God in His glory, bridging a quiet, slower melody with a breakout up-tempo declaration. Quick guitar riffs and pounding drums keep "Treasure of You" on track as it tells of God seeing us as His greatest pearl; at the end, Steven works in an attempt at rap, sounding well-practiced though not quite dc Talk-level. Written for his wife Mary Beth, track six commits to Christ's challenge to "Love and Learn" even through disagreement and conflict. Crashing ocean surf and atmospheric sea gull calls set the tone as Steven Curtis sets sail on "Burn the Ships." This story-in-song parallels our Christian walk to Cortez's 1519 voyage to the New World; pointing to the explorer's answer ("We've past the point of no return") to his crew's fears. Undoubtedly born of the his outreach with Prison Fellowship, "Remember Your Chains" goes beyond the chains of a prison jail cell to the bondage of a life without God--and the freedom God gives. "Heartbeat of Heaven" is Steven's cry to have a heart that beats not for himself, but for God and others. Starting with his three kids singing "Frere Jacques," Steven quietly rejoices that God is "Still Listening" to his prayers. Enlivening the latter half of the album, the youth group favorite "Facts Are Facts" is a loud, bold proclamation that "Promises are promises and facts and facts," refuting relativists with intense rock. Backed up by a full orchestra and his acoustic, Chapman marvels at Jesus making life and its problems turn out for the good, calling it a "Miracle of Mercy." As if to sum up the album's focus of the most important thing, a brief encore of "Heartbeat of Heaven" is sung, reminding that it's a real-life, rock solid faith that brings more Heaven in the Real World.
- Dan Ficker and Josh M. Shepherd

MORE TO THIS LIFE (1989)
More to this Life - Click to view!So you're the average teenage millennial, die hard fan of dcT, thinking, "Great! Steven Curtis Chapman in 1989--what could be worse?" Now, hold on. While many claim the eighties was Christian music's "lost decade," the passion to question faith and culture on this album inspired many of today's hottest alternative bands...and stands its own musical ground with both acoustic and programmed melody. Not convinced? Check out a verse from "Love You with My Life:" "Some people love with money ~ Some people love with words ~ Some people love because they love the return." I could go on, but the point is that More to This Life is far from the "love one another" cheesiness of today's pop--instead challenging all with undeniable honesty. A major milestone in Christian hit radio, the title track is an inspired melody looking to the supernatural realm for the meaning of life. "Waiting For Lightning" finds the listener at that in-between time waiting for a sign or feeling while God is calling for an intimate relationship. As "Living for the Moment" ends, the tender strain of strings is heard. "I Will Be Here." I had forgotten Steven's best-known ballad to his wife was on this disc, sure to bring tears to the eyes of all the Gen-Xers whose weddings have featured it. The only impression of "Who Makes the Rules?" is gladness that SCC abandoned country for his current modern pop/alternative (if you can stand the sound, it does hold a crucial message for the church). Listen closely to the backdrop of this CD and you'll find a keyboard and guitar fighting for volume; this subtle struggle represented a crossroads for Steven, with the guitar eventually winning out in the 1994 recording Heaven in the Real World. Track seven makes an interesting metaphor comparing the wealth of wisdom in God's Word to the search for fortune in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (and one of my favorite films, the Disney version...but I'm not doing movie reviews now). Three of my favorite SCC songs follow consecutively: "Way Beyond the Blue" finds a fading passion being renewed by God's endless vision; with an acousticism vaguely reminiscent of Caedmon's Call, "In This Little Room" reveals the heart of a songwriter praying for his craft to touch hearts; and the album's tenth cut relates the conflict of expressing "Thoughts my hearts alone can speak." As a landmark CCM album, and as a time of quiet consideration between the more intense projects Real Life Conversations and For the Sake of the Call, Steven's third effort is worth seeking.
- Josh M. Shepherd
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