Donald Lawrence Presents the Tri-City Singers
RCA Inspiration (release date: February 1, 2019)
By Bob Marovich
Using Old and New Testament stories to reinforce the need for a spiritual exodus from modern-day anxieties, Goshen, the latest album by Donald Lawrence and the Tri-City Singers, is the first big gospel release of 2019 and could well take its place among the best gospel albums of the year.
Goshen, taken from references in Exodus of “God’s promised place” where one can find joy in the midst of troubled times, is a compendium of worship songs, declarations of personal empowerment, rages against the machine, and shouts of ultimate victory, through God, over personal pain.
What struck me immediately about this thematic project is how steeped it is in musical theater. Like Thomas Dorsey did ninety years ago, Lawrence employs theatrical techniques to tell the story. He studied musical theater in college and uses his learning to maximum impact on Goshen.
For example, the spotlight shines on the complex “Let My People Go,” on the toe-tapping beat of the title track, and on the cacophony of voices and samples of the Rev. C. L. Franklin lining out “I Love the Lord, He Heard My Cry” on “He Heard My Cry.” Lawrence’s dramatic exhortations preceding many of the songs puts me in mind of the Reverend James Cleveland and his penchant for setting up a song with a sermonette. It’s a technique Cleveland likely learned from Eugene Smith of the Roberta Martin Singers who may, in turn, have learned it from the Reverend Glenn T. Settles of the Wings over Jordan Choir.
The lush, cascading harmonies emblematic of the Tri-City Singers are on full display during the melodic “Jehovah Sabaoth (God of Angel Armies).” The song is rendered in turns gently and demonstrably by lead singer Brittany Stewart. This austere and breathtakingly beautiful hymn oozes with the influence of songwriters Richard Smallwood, Andrae Crouch, and Kirk Franklin.
The array of gospel talent on Goshen makes it an all-star package. Each artist brings his or her top game, from the Murrills and Arnetta Murrill-Crooms—alumni of the Tri-City Singers—to Sheri Jones-Moffett, Jason Nelson, Lejeune Thompson, Blanche McAllister Dykes, and Le’Andria Johnson (her smoking lead on “Deliver Me” is the current single), among others. Jekalyn Carr revs up the onomatopoeia of the breathy worship ode, “YHWH (The Sound of My Breathing).” Sir the Baptist infuses elements of hip hop on “He Heard My Cry.”
NPR Tiny Desk champions Tank and the Bangas join the ensemble on “Let My People Go,” the album’s most explicitly political selection. It likens wage inequality, human trafficking, racial prejudice, police brutality, the corporate power elite’s mistreatment of its employees, and other forms of systematic oppression to how Pharaoh treated the Hebrew slaves. Everyone is equal under God, the ensemble sings, with the line “you cannot box with God” a sly reference to Alex Bradford’s gospel musical, Your Arms Too Short to Box with God.
Goshen is a majestic musical portrait of the struggle to break free from personal suffering in all of its manifestations, and an ode to the soul’s ultimate victory through holding on, with confidence, to God’s unchanging hands.
Five of Five Stars
Picks: “Jehovah Sabaoth (God of Angels Armies),” “Deliver Me (This is My Exodus),” “Goshen,” “Let My People Go.”