Rev. Luther Barnes & the Restoration Worship Center Choir
Look to the Hills
Shanachie Entertainment / SRT Entertainment (release date: May 29, 2020)
By Bob Marovich
Listening to the title track and lead single of Reverend Luther Barnes’ latest album, I revisited a thought I’ve had for some time: Barnes has emerged as today’s most important representative of traditional-flavored gospel music.
The heartwarming and optimistic “Look to the Hills,” made all the more heartbreaking by the recent passing of its co-writer, Derrick Adams, is the latest in a string of hits crafted in the southern choir-tet sound, pioneered by the Mississippi Mass Choir. Barnes and his Restoration Worship Center Choir’s previous album for Shanachie, The Favor of God, gave us “God’s Grace.” I suspect that song and “Look to the Hills” will live long after their respective albums have faded from our remembrance.
Other selections on Look to the Hills, due out this Friday, have a similar feel to those on The Favor of God. “You Kept Me,” featuring strong ensemble work by the choir, has the soulful austerity of a James Cleveland choral piece from the 1980s. The quartet side of the Barnes Family comes into full focus on “Thank You for What You’ve Already Done.” It’s an ensemble piece between Barnes and fellow quartet veterans Huey Williams, Doc McKenzie, and Jarrell Smalls.
The more contemporary “I Love Serving the Lord” is an appropriately buoyant selection, as is the similarly-themed “I Love Him,” a call-and-response between Barnes and the choir, complete with an extended musical interlude. “Best of Me,” a passionate prayer steeped in the smooth ballad style of Bishop Marvin Sapp, is radio-ready.
Bonita Greene expresses herself well on “Lord Give Us Time,” a song about the urgency of evangelism. “I’ll Still Belong to You” and “Hear Me as I Pray” are personal prayers with strong choral support. Wanda Barnes leads the former, while the latter is a duet between choristers Lulu Cooper and James Leonard. They request divine healing for individuals experiencing physical and emotional distress, as well as assistance gathering wayward children.
One of the most interesting selections on the album is “Well Done.” It’s a Barnes composition written and rendered not in the African American gospel tradition but as a southern gospel weeper, complete with Travis Toy’s keening pedal steel for accompaniment.
Barnes, Adams, and Ray Braswell Jr. produced the album. With its heartfelt messages, solid singing, and excellent song construction, Look to the Hills has the right stuff. It is one of the best gospel releases thus far this year.
Five of Five Stars
Picks: “Look to the Hills,” “You Kept Me,” “Best of Me”