Thursday, August 27, 2009

Music Review: Needtobreathe - The Outsiders

Label: Atlantic Records
Release Date: August 25, 2009

Rating: 5/5

Things are about to get a lot bigger for the guys from Needtobreathe. They successfully avoided the dreaded “sophomore slump” with their stellar, Dove-award-nominated album, The Heat, back in 2007. Songs from that album appeared in movies, TV shows, and even on ESPN. Now, their third studio release, The Outsiders, showcases a band that has found its identity: outsiders who don’t fit neatly into anyone’s boxes, but can connect with most. Masterfully blending earnest lyrics with elements of southern rock and a modern rock sound all their own, Needtobreathe has produced easily their finest work to date, and possibly the best rock record of the year thus far.

Fans of The Heat will recognize all the stylistic components that made that record fantastic, but production, musicianship, and song-writing have all improved here, the result being an extremely professional-sounding record that doesn’t lose the gritty, southern rock feel. The album leads off with the title track, and the acoustic-driven “Valley of Tomorrow,” both of which would have fit right in on The Heat.

“Through Smoke” follows and shows the improved and diverse song-writing skills of the band. Pounding drums, along with subtle guitars and piano support the glorious vocals of Bear Rinehart as he sings of seeing truth through confusion and doubt. Rinehart has one of the best rock voices I’ve ever heard, and his voice sounds spectacular here. The crescendo, with group vocals and even a harmonica, is simply beautiful and leads right into the current single, “Lay ‘Em Down.” This is straight-up southern rock, hand claps and foot stomps included.

The album hits its stride then slows things down with “Stones Under Rushing Water,” as Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins joins Rinehart on a gorgeous acoustic-based song about longing for the past (Note: the deluxe version includes a video of a live acoustic version of this song and makes the deluxe version completely worth it). Rinehart’s voice shines throughout the album, but even more so in this stripped down tune. The lush harmonies evoke powerful emotion and again showcase the amazing song-writing on The Outsiders.

There is honestly not a weak track on this 14-song album. Other highlights include “Prisoner,” which could be off a CCR or Skynyrd album with its straight southern rock and smoking guitar solo, and “Girl Named Tennessee,” an up-tempo, piano riff-driven gem. Just try to listen to either of these songs without tapping a toe or bobbing your head. “Garden” beautifully paints a picture of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the album closes with “Let Us Love,” which possesses one of the most beautiful verse structures I’ve heard. Subtle guitar picking and piano build to a driving, group-sung chorus.

The Outsiders is an interesting title for this collection. Without trying to be everything to everyone, Needtobreathe have refused to adhere to any kind of sacred/secular label for their music, choosing instead to let the music speak for itself. They’re not preaching, but they don’t hide the worldview from which the music springs.

Obvious spiritual aspects are present in the lyrics, and the music itself connects with the soul at times, but this is simply solid music that reflects the artists who produced it. It will connect with believers and cynics alike, taking each of them on a beautiful musical journey. Needtobreathe may still feel like outsiders, but this album is sure to convince many to let them in to stay.

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