CD Review of Some Bridges by Fred Martin and the Levite Camp

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Some Bridges
starstarstarno starno star Label: Concord
Released: 2006
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To anyone born after 1980, the idea of a gospel group covering Jackson Browne songs might seem more than a little ridiculous; it’s hard to imagine anyone believing that, for instance, “In the Shape of a Heart” was crying out for the choir treatment. Browne’s two best songs of the last quarter-century – “Somebody’s Baby” and “The Rebel Jesus” – showed up on, respectively, a soundtrack and a greatest-hits compilation. It’s been a while, in other words, since he released an essential album.

At their best, though, Jackson Browne’s songs have always had authentic traditional roots. It’s a period that’s been either forgotten or written off as excessively maudlin, but even during the peak of the sensitive singer/songwriter movement in the early ‘70s, those roots set Browne apart from his peers; his lyrics had a (sometimes irritatingly) literate existentialist sorrow, but the music often wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a hymnal. His 1974 masterpiece, Late for the Sky, is the best full-length example, but all of the most powerful songs from his early recordings were drawn from a well of what might be termed secular gospel inspiration; in the hands of a church choir, “These Days,” “For a Dancer,” and even “Running on Empty” take on another meaning.

It’s sort of a pity, then, that Some Bridges, the Browne-heavy debut from inner-city music teacher Fred Martin and his Levite Camp, focuses so squarely on inferior material from latter-day Browne albums, such as 2002’s The Naked Ride Home, or 1989’s dreaded World in Motion. The songs aren’t bad, per se, but they aren’t Browne’s best, or even the best choices for this type of project. What ultimately saves the album are the performances from the kids in Martin’s Levite Camp. Led by Chavonne Morris and Alethea Mills, the group delivers some stellar (albeit periodically melisma-stained) vocals, abetted by Martin and Browne’s live-in-the-studio production, not to mention guest turns from Hugh Masakela, Ozomatli, and Keb’ Mo’.

It’s wonderful work Martin is doing with these singers, and it’s easy to see why Browne is excited to hear his songs interpreted this way. However, it’s also impossible not to hope that, next time around, they’re given better material to sing.

~Jeff Giles