Mountain High...Valley Low
On her latest album, Mountain High Valley Low, Yolanda Adams sets a trap for the listener.
After ten years as a gospel recording artist, with four studio albums and one live release to her credit, Adams seems poised for a crossover, this being her major-label debut and all. And there's nothing wrong with making the leap. There have been others. Aretha Franklin, Amy Grant, assorted members of the Winans family. Heck, Kirk Franklin has practically spent his career preaching to nonbelievers that his brand of gospel-R&B-rap has upbeat lyrics and a beat you can dance to.
On Adams's new one, the crossover is more of a bait and switch, although it's the kind of hook you probably won't mind dangling on. The first few tracks on Mountain High sound like Adams is poised to make a secular assault on the pop charts, but it's only an idle threat, only a method to hook nongospel listeners into her message.
The record opens with "Time to Change," an inspirational number that could have been mixed by Puff Daddy or Rodney Jerkins. (The track even has a Puffy-like sidekick who appears just to egg Adams on.) As drum-machine beats cut and thump, Adams, with a cascading yet bold voice, unloads "Waterfalls"-style morality tales that have a familiar R&B sound.
The second song, "Yeah," is just as soulfully contemporary in its sound. A plucky acoustic guitar underscores Adams's voice as she pledges her love and admiration to the one who matters most. Adams has publicly stated the song is about her devotion to The Man Upstairs, but it can be conceptually mistaken for one of those I-love-my-man tunes you regularly hear from R&B girl singers (that is, when they're not talking about "scrubs" and/or "trifling brothas"). On the next track, "Fragile Heart," Adams addresses the tragic loss of a friend in a heartstring-tugging, whispery ballad. Still no sign of heavy gospel.
Adams, always faithful to her core fans, is sharp enough to know that the only way to rope in secular listeners (i.e., heathens) is to add some contemporary R&B flair. And right when you think Adams won't go a-testifying and all that -- BAM! -- she hits you with The Word.
The album officially kicks into full-gospel mode with the double whammy of "That Name" and "In the Midst of It All." On the former Adams sings, "This name is worthy of all praises / Because of Him / I am made free." Now while the former song is the kind of lighthearted stuff that could fare well with the Crystal Lewis crowd, the latter is for those old-school Shirley Caesar-loving folk.
But even in her full-on gospel mode, Adams keeps one foot in the secular world, mostly with an ever-present R&B-ish sound. Many of the remaining numbers on this 11-track album have Adams getting jiggy for the Lord. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, R&B production royalty, work on three tracks, including the Jamiroquai-esque dance-pop finale, "Already Alright." And Adams ventures into Kirk Franklin territory with the bass-beating "Continual Praise."
Except for the few times Adams really appears to be laying on the preachiness (like on "The Things We Do," in which she uses audio samples from a JFK speech), Mountain High works well as a mix of gospel and soul. (Craig D. Lindsey)
Yolanda Adams performs Friday, November 5, at the Aerial Theater at Bayou Place.