Sound Check

More convincing modern-rock alternatives come by way of DC Talk and Audio Adrenaline, two showpiece acts on the Tennessee-based Forefront label, which owns many of the brightest CCM artists. Both bands' mildly rebellious funk/metal/pop leanings owe a considerable debt to Living Colour and Red Hot Chili Peppers, while their richly textured lead vocals and harmonies bring to mind King's X. Jesus Freak (*** 1/2), the debut from mixed-race power trio DC Talk, was released late last year and sold 86,000 copies in its first week. A liberal use of sampling and a sharp sense of humor work to the CD's advantage, as does the band's willingness to embrace a variety of styles, from sensitive, preachy ballads to white-guy rap to in-your-face mosh-pit fare.

Audio Adrenaline's Bloom (***) is a weaker effort, stunted by less inventive songwriting and a dull, futile cover of the Doobie Brothers' "Free Ride." Still, much of the disc rocks with authority. Be forewarned, though, both Jesus Freak and Bloom are heavy on the ecclesiastical discourse.

New Forefront releases from the post-grunge rockers Skillet and Bleach feature less pontificating and rawer, faux lo-fi production values. But again, neither group makes a strong case for its own individuality. Skillet (**) serves up warmed-over Bush with sporadic tempo problems, and on Space (** 1/2), Bleach attempts to reconcile its lack of novel ideas with a recurring Pixies imitation. Admittedly, though, it's not a bad one. Weezer should be worried.

Virgins to the Christian rock movement may want to start into it slowly with Seltzer (*** 1/2), a 15-band CCM compilation from Forefront. The quality here fluctuates wildly, from the intolerable Hootie-isms of Third Day's "Forever" to the righteously catchy chorus of the Newsboys' "God Is Not a Secret" to the drippy reflection of PFR's "Garden" to the implosive Goth-grunge of Poor Old Lu's "Where Were All of You," that last a God-fearing Smashing Pumpkins sound-alike. The bulk of Seltzer is not only tolerable but enjoyable, suggesting that the road to Heaven may indeed be paved not only with good deeds, but with hit singles. Seltzer includes among its bands the Jayhawksy foursome Big Tent Revival, Christian rock's entry into the roots-alternative movement. In fact, the group's not-too-traditional, melody-intensive Open All Nite (***) might well be the most memorable and consistent CD of the Forefront flock.

Mercifully absent from the Seltzer collection is Rebecca St. James, an 18-year-old Alanis Morissette clone whose starry-eyed love songs to the Lord are about as sheltered from real-life as CCM gets. Her Forefront debut, God (* 1/2), is for fanatics only. Introspective singer/songwriter Sarah Masen is more adept at avoiding the precious, holier-than-thou dogma that weighs down God. Consider Masen evangelical folk-pop's answer to Shawn Colvin, with an enchanting voice that occasionally trails off into an otherworldly sophistication characteristic of Kate Bush. Sarah Masen (****) is poetic and personal, largely saving the pulpit-speak for church, as its lush arrangements and able-bodied melodies succeed for the most part in letting you forget (if you insist on doing so) that God is the subject.

If you think about it, what Masen and a few others have accomplished is what all evangelical acts need to do if they want to slip past the barriers of mainstream skepticism: Simply fool people into thinking they're listening to secular music, and you may have a shot at passing along a little salvation.

-- Hobart Rowland

***** Walking the streets of gold
**** Outside the pearly gates
*** Stuck on this mortal coil
** Waiting it out in purgatory
* Straight to hell

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