“I don’t want to like The Mighty Clouds of Joy. I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna.” Can you see me kicking my feet, throwing an adult temper tantrum on hardwood floors? Perhaps, I should explain my bias.
I have a love/hate relationship with traditional gospel music, probably due to the unsavory type who I assume primarily listen to it. For me, it conjured up images of preachy, sour-faced, badly-aged church folks: women who wear hats big enough to shade people on either side of them, and men who wear suits and wingtips just to go mow the lawn. So I rejected the music on principle alone. But The Mighty Clouds of Joy’s latest, At The Revival, has proven to be some long overdue therapy for my old school issues.
NEW BLOOD, NEW LIFE
I caught word that soul impresario Raphael Saadiq produced the lion’s share of Revival. Relationally, the pairing seemed strange, but musically, it makes perfect sense. If you paid attention to Raphael while he was with 90’s new jack outfit Tony! Toni! Tone!, you could hear gospel music in the foundation of songs like “The Blues” and “If I Had No Loot.” Their debut hit “Little Walter” even went so far as to refigure its chorus from the old spiritual “Wade In The Water.”
To sweeten the deal, the Clouds also invited Donald DeGrate to participate, better known as DeVante Swing of influential (but now defunct) hip-hop soul trio Jodeci. This is the guy who launched the careers of both Timbaland and Missy Elliott. So I had to find out how he got into the mix with a legacy gospel group like Mighty Clouds of Joy.
It turns out that neither R&B/hip-hop trailblazer is too far removed from the church. Donald, along with his brother Dalvin DeGrate, began singing in a traveling gospel group that formed the embryo of Jodeci. And Saadiq has been a fan of the Mighty Clouds of Joy since listening to their records as a young child. It was he who reached out first to work on this project. So it’s no surprise that he turns out some of the most inspired results. I was sold on the first track within seconds.
GOOD INGREDIENTS, GOOD FOOD
The bluesy “Stop To Praise” opens with a well-traveled electric guitar extending a hand to welcome you in. Its steady bassline, courtesy of Raphael himself, locks arm-in-arm with a kick drum that sweetly peaks the VU-meter throughout the next 4½ minutes. It’s the type of song you might hear during the opening credits of some critically acclaimed big-budget flick starring Tom Hanks. Suffice it to say, this album sounds expensive. And that’s a good thing.
Next, lead singer Joe Ligon kicks off the album’s namesake tune with an engaging preach-sung interlude. After an introduction that’s part black history lesson and part tent meeting altar call, it launches into a feel good churchy groove. “At The Revival” is anchored with a faithfully simple chord structure and the Clouds’ solid backing vocals. I was amazed that it held my full attention. There’s nothing fancy here outside of good musicianship and superior technical prowess in the production.
It sets the stage nicely for “I’ll Be Up There,” a foot-tapping piece about the joy that we’ll see in Heaven. Where other groups might be tempted to riff such a likeable song into the ground, this one never overstays its welcome. It makes its point sweetly and moves on. I just wasn’t used to Gospel music being that polite. So I went back and listened to it again so I could tap my foot some more.
Easily one of my favorites on the album is “Hard Times,” lead by the late Mike Cook. The inspirational waltz-timed ballad expertly frames Cook’s sunny falsetto, and calls to mind the classic soul of a group like Heatwave or The Stylistics. A member of the Mighty Clouds since 1996, the album is dedicated to his memory.
The testimonial “Jesus Kind of Man” feels both vintage and contemporary all at once. This is the type of music that has permeated America, but hasn’t fully been acknowledged yet. Strip away the quartet vocals and replace them with John Mayer, and Billboard will regard it in the pop/rock category. If John Mayer’s not your thing (which these days, he’s not most black people’s thing), you could just as easily swap him out for Anthony Hamilton and it would become throwback R&B masquerading under the title of “neo-soul.” Replace Anthony Hamilton with Common or Nas, and it becomes conscious and street-credible hip-hop.
Saadiq’s work perfects the group’s tried-and-true sound. His less-is-more strategy turns out to be gold for the Mighty Clouds. The instrumentation is decidedly sparse, never cluttering the speakers with gaudy horn sections or orchestral pageantry. And I have never heard Joe Ligon recorded so immaculately. The grit in his voice, while no less plausible, gets buffed to a shimmery shine that makes every song easy to listen to.
NO RISK, NO RETURN
Their third album for EMI Gospel, At The Revival comes at a perfect time for The Mighty Clouds of Joy, as they celebrate 50 years of ministry. What better time to present some new elements than at such a pivotal milestone? This is where DeVante Swing comes in. Where Raphael Saadiq embraced the Clouds’ traditional sound, DeVante Swing takes occasion to embellish upon it.
Admittedly, some of the original Clouds have been replaced with young men who prop up the group’s legacy nicely. The turn of Ron Staples stepping to the lead on “I Love You Lord” places the Mighty Clouds in a setting that might easily house a group like The Soul Seekers or Men of Standard. While a modern context, DeVante’s style never feels anachronistic for them, only soulful and familiar.
It’s so familiar in fact, that you’ll have to forgive my digression here. Privately, I get a big kick out of my theory that “I Love You Lord” was originally intended to be a baby-making hit for Jodeci. Don’t tell me you can’t imagine K-Ci & JoJo doing choreographed pelvic thrusts in sync with the pop-pop horn hits in the chorus. Don’t lay that “bad visual” to the Clouds’ charge though. That’s just my satirical way of settling into the thought that traditional gospel music isn’t bad. One thing certain about At The Revival is, gospel or not, this is just good music.
If you dig a little bit into their history, Mighty Clouds of Joy aren’t playing so far out of pocket incorporating the full soul spectrum into their gospel sound. Once known as “The Temptations of Gospel” for their choreography and colorful costumes, they had a whole string of crossover R&B hits that flew under the gospel radar in the ‘70s. The biggest was 1975’s “Mighty High,” which topped the disco charts and was even covered by Gloria Gaynor, as well as Ike & Tina Turner.
Even though At The Revival is true to its genre, it doesn’t sound like my grandmother’s music. Something about it is accessible to me. So now I can call this music my own. If you’ve never ventured to listen to a group like Mighty Clouds of Joy, this is the album to pick up. Grab your copy on iTunes, Amazon, or Lala.com today! At The Revival is available right now both in stores and online services everywhere.
For more on The Mighty Clouds of Joy, watch this interview with lead singer Joe Ligon and then visit www.emigospel.com.
Other Related Articles: