Saturday, April 8, 2017

Bethel Music: Starlight Review

In 2014, Bethel Music released You Make Me Brave, eleven songs recorded live at Bethel Church’s women’s conference. The album featured only Bethel’s female artists, most predominately Amanda Cook, but also included Jenn Johnson, Steffany Gretzinger, Leah Valenzuela, Kristene DiMarco, and a guest appearance by Kari Jobe. After releasing We Will Not Be Shaken, and their #1 album Have It All, Bethel Music is following in the footsteps of You Make Me Brave, releasing their second album, titled Starlight, that again features only their female artists.

Starlight is also the first of Bethel Music albums to be recorded solely on tour, whereas most of their albums are recorded at their home church. Starlight also features many songs that fans of Bethel Music who have been watching their worship sets will recognize, such as “Take Courage” by Kristene DiMarco, “The War is Over” by Kalley Heiligenthal, and Amanda Cook’s cover of “You Came (Lazarus).” The combination of these factors makes Starlight a very exciting listen for the longtime Bethel Music fan!

With light acoustic guitar, the title track opens up the album with phenomenal vocals by Amanda Cook. Amanda’s flawless vocals bring a touching message of how our God is never far away – He’s closer than our very breath: “Oh, You’re not far away, You’re coming close/ You’re coming close/ And even as I wait, You’re coming close/ You’re coming close.” As with many of Amanda Cook’s outstanding tracks, “Starlight” builds fantastically throughout, where light guitar and strings give way to the strength of heavy drums and electric guitar, as Amanda sings her four-stanza bridge declaring God’s intimacy. The highlight is where Amanda raises her voice and all strings, guitars, and drums mix for a short instrumental after she declares the glory of God: “You are infinite/ Your glory has no end – Jesus!” From beginning to end, “Starlight” is easily a track to have on repeat!

Dove Award-winning Francesca Battistelli appears next with her first of two tracks, “No Other Name,” a song she has been singing on tour for a while. I was honestly surprised – at first by her appearance, but then by how her powerful vocals matched the sound of the album. Raising her voice, she boldly declares “There’s no other name like Yours, Jesus!” The simplicity of this track makes it easy to worship along!

“Extravagant” follows – a duet between Amanda Cook and Steffany Gretzinger. Although it begins with acoustic guitar and heavenly harmonies, it builds by the end of the chorus. Amanda and Steffany together proclaim the extravagance of God’s love toward us, a love that we cannot comprehend with our human minds. The bridge is simply beautiful, as they together sing: “Here is all my love/ It’s Yours with no conditions/ When You pull me close, no, I won’t resist it” over and over again before heading back into the song’s strong chorus. This is one of my personal favorite tracks off Starlight, one that I have found myself singing throughout the day, as it helps the listener to remember how much they are loved by God at each and every moment! A very light acoustic spontaneous track titled “Breathe” follows, also sung by Amanda. Though it doesn’t build much, Amanda preaches a wonderful message in this short oracle, that “we’re not just singing to the sky/ Worship is connection”! Although I would have loved to hear more spontaneous tracks such as this on the album, this one is a treasure.

Just like “It Is Well” on You Make Me Brave, Kristene DiMarco brings yet another moving worship track similar in melody and tempo, titled “Take Courage.” Speaking to our souls to rest in God’s faithfulness, the sing-along chorus states these powerful lyrics: “Take courage, my heart/ Stay steadfast, my soul/ He’s in the waiting, He’s in the waiting/ Hold on to your hope as your triumph unfolds/ He’s never failing!” In its bridge, Kristene sings, “You Who hold the stars, and calls them each by name, You’ll surely keep Your promise to me that I will rise in Your victory!”  Particularly in this bridge, you can hear vocals and cheers from the audience that obviously receives the strength the track imparts! “Take Courage” is my favorite track off Starlight for all these reasons!

Steffany Gretzinger follows with “King of My Heart,” a cover that she often sings in her worship sets. Declaring its timeless message that God is good (“You are good, good, oooh”), this track also features a guest appearance by Jeremy Riddle who sings the bridge (“You’re never gonna let, never gonna let me down”). Although I wouldn’t say it is the best version Steffany has done, it was good to finally hear a recording of her singing this modern-day hymn on a Bethel Music album. “God I Look To You,” Jenn Johnson’s song follows, although, with stronger drums than the original recording, it is sung by Francesca Battistelli! I was again pleasantly surprised, as her deep and strong vocals perfectly fit one of my favorite Bethel worship songs.

Kalley Heiligental, writer of “Ever Be” and “Spirit Move,” brings us two tracks back-to-back – “The War is Over” and “I See the Light,” a spontaneous oracle. The former, which was new to me, declares how the blood of Jesus has ended the war and made us all His children. She declares in the chorus, “He has made a way for us/ Born for glory out of dust/ Children held within the arms of peace,” and in the bridge, “It is finished/ It is done/ The blood of Jesus overcomes!” As the track fades out, we hear Kalley sing spontaneously, “This is my battle cry/ I’m found in Jesus Christ,” which I thoroughly enjoyed! In the same key, “I See the Light” declares God’s delight in us, His children. Kalley’s higher vocals are beautiful and Bethel musicians build appropriately throughout, making it a perfect part-two for its proceeding track!

Appearing first on their album Never Surrender, “Catch the Wind,” by Melissa Helser appears and also features her husband, Jonathan David. Composed of cheerful-sounding piano, strings, and strong drums, this track compares us to eagles who were made to fly – a confession over our soul that we are strong, steadfast, and soaring high above the problems of this life. I heard Melissa share the story behind the song at the onething 2016 conference – how God instructed her to sing over her physical weakness and this song was the result – and my love for this track was accentuated!

Hannah McClure, who sings “Faithful to the End” with her husband Paul on Have it All, brings a strong track “Old to New.” It definitely sounds like the You Make Me Brave tracks, such as “I Belong to You” and “Shepherd,” as Hannah commands the old to be replaced by the new that God has purchased for us: “Joy, begin to rise/ Hope, begin to light the dark/ For our God exchanges old for new.” Following is “For the One,” a simple acoustic track – the only track off this album, in fact, that is led by Jenn Johnson. Originally from Brian & Jenn’s newest album After All These Years, it was good to hear again on Starlight, as it was one of my favorites off their album.

As much as I love “You Came (Lazarus)” by Jonathan David and Melissa Helser (also off the Never Surrender album), I was blown away by Amanda Cook’s version that she sang at a recent Bethel Church worship service. Her flawless vocals gave an extra strength to this track, and I was very excited that her cover was chosen for the Starlight  album! When Amanda sings the powerful bridge, “You are a miracle-working God,” audience participation is heard, which is thoroughly enjoyable. Closing the album is a special acoustic performance of “Extravagant,” which is again sung by Amanda and Steffany. Little more than soft piano and heavenly harmonies, this simple version is outstandingly beautiful, a very peaceful close to the Starlight album.

There were a few things I missed about the Starlight album – such as hearing some of my favorite Bethel male vocalists leading worship (although a few of them can be heard in the background), and the spontaneous tracks, of which there were only two short ones. So at first, I wasn’t entirely thrilled with the Starlight album. But, after listening to it during my personal prayer time, I was struck by the message of God’s faithfulness, His nearness to us – even when we feel He is far away –  and the finished work of the cross. I think it is safe to say that Starlight contains a strength to it, in every area – message, music and outstanding vocals, from Amanda Cook especially, but also Francesca Battistelli, Jenn Johnson, and others. Starlight is a phenomenal album that hand-picks the best of Bethel Music’s tracks that have so far been released, as well as ones that we have heard performed yet have not been recorded. Starlight is a wonderful album to add to your worship collection!

Rating: 4.5/5
Release date: April 7, 2017

Track listing:
1. Starlight (Amanda Cook)
2. There's No Other Name (Francesca Battistelli)
3. Extravagant (Amanda Cook & Steffany Gretzinger)
4. Breathe (Spontaneous) (Amanda Cook)
5. Take Courage (Kristene DiMarco)
6. King of My Heart (Steffany Gretzinger)
7. God I Look to You (Francesca Battistelli)
8. The War is Over (Kalley Heiligenthal)
9. I See the Light (Spontaneous) (Kalley Heiligenthal)
10. Catch the Wind (Mellisa Helser)
11. Old For New (Hannah McClure)
12. For the One (Jenn Johnson)
13. You Came (Lazarus) (Amanda Cook)
14. Extravagant (Acoustic) (Amanda Cook & Steffany Gretzinger)

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