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There was a time not long ago when the only religious figure to have any clout in rock and roll was the devil, when decent, church-going folks wanted nothing to do with his primordial rhythms. Rock was nasty business, and its practitioners at least a few sins over the Lord's limit.

That is, of course, precisely why the kids loved the stuff. They bought into the appeal of rebellion, of pissing off their elders. More often than not, good rock and roll has run hand in hand with bad behavior; it's been the established precedent since the days when Elvis unleashed his groin on the viewing public and Jerry Lee married his 13-year-old cousin. In the '50s it was sex and the mixing of races; in the '60s, sex, drugs and violence; and from then on, it's been a good dose of all of the above. If there was something sordid messing with the moral fiber of America's young, you can bet rock music was linked to it. Rock was the sound of humans being human, and that frailty both made it Satan's lullaby and supplied the tension that made the music real.

Not that piety has been missing completely from rock and roll. The music's debt to gospel is well known, and spiritual values of one form or another have been broached by a host of rock artists, from Bob Dylan to Van Morrison to Seals and Crofts, Bruce Cockburn, U2 and Lenny Kravitz. But the preaching has tended to be done in vague, non-denominational form or, as in the case of a George Harrison (Hinduism) or a Pete Townshend (guru Meher Baba), reflected faiths exotic by middle-American standards.

Houston has seen its own share of rock believers, with bands such as King's X and the Galactic Cowboys displaying flashes of reverence in their arty, harmony-laden hard rock, though God's message is often clouded by the music's gritty, earth-bound compulsions. One of the more recent additions to the local faith brigade is the stern, blustery boogie-metal band the Zealots. They, like their predecessors, preach, but they do so with discretion, careful not to alienate the secular crowd.

Such self-imposed ambiguity has rarely been a symptom of Christian Contemporary Music (CCM for short), which came along in the early '80s blaring a message about as subtle as a Sunday sermon. In CCM, the Word is out front for all to hear, and the music is merely its vehicle. For years, with only a few exceptions (Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith being two big ones), CCM has done little more than preach to the converted, mainly because its earnest, evangelical conceits were so narrow. Aside from being outright bad, holy-rockers such as Petra, Carman and spandexed, big-haired bible-thumpers Stryper were so far removed from contemporary musical norms that to mainstream rock fans they were seen as little more than an insignificant joke -- if they were noticed at all.

Now, though, some momentum appears to be shifting to God's side -- or at least the new and improved crop of '90s Christian rockers would like to think so. They have reason to be optimistic: CCM has come of age swiftly, nurtured by its own burgeoning evangelical underground. Initial support came from a few independent record labels, churches and Christian bookstores, followed by national magazines, mail-order music clubs and Web sites. CCM acts have even begun appearing on the charts, this after Billboard switched to Soundscan, a data gathering system that includes retail sales from the nation's Christian bookstores. By 1995, a few Christian bands were selling well into the tens of thousands, which was all the incentive rock industry giants such as EMI, Sony and BMG needed to swoop down and gobble up Christian artists and labels.

Still, there's something so, so ... un-rock about most evangelical bands; their clothes are just a little too neat, the whites of their eyes a little too clear, their smiles a little too innocent. Nonetheless, Christian artists have grown more pragmatic, paying closer attention to what's going on around them, broadening their tastes and loosening their collars, so to speak. In effect, they're finally beginning to view rock as a powerful means unto itself, not just a means to an end. As a result, the music has improved almost to the point where sinners can indulge without cringing.

Then again, it's easy to exaggerate what would normally be considered only a superficial upgrade. Good intentions aside, the premiere groups of the CCM genre have a tendency to coast on the tail end of mainstream trends rather than actively scoping out fresh territory. Indeed, many CCM acts are dogged by their bigger, better secular counterparts. For example, God-rock supergroup Jars of Clay, with its vehemently strummed acoustic power chords and brooding stance, sounds an awful lot like an unplugged, born-again variant of Live. The band's pleasantly catchy 1995 debut, Jars of Clay, has proven hook value, especially the ultra-addictive "Flood," which made it to MTV and helped the CD go gold. Still, a resolute sappiness (i.e., too many references to children, flowers and the wonders of God's grace) makes Jars of Clay as off-puttingly tedious as it is painfully naive. (** 1/2)

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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