Real Love Songs

What do you think about when you think of worship and praise music?

I’m guessing you think about the usual suspects of guitar-led odes ala Hillsong, Israel Houghton, Casting Crowns or Third Day that all sing of the greatness of God, His lovingkindness, His Kingdom, praising Christ and so forth. Or, you may think of the juggernauts of Urban Gospel such as Kirk Franklin, Mary Mary, Fred Hammond or Smokey Norful. Odds are however, that you don’t think of smooth, well-produced love ballads and mid-tempo grooves that express the love of a man for his wife, and that sound more like the latest offering from Maxwell, Kem, Eric Roberson or Kenny Lattimore. Well, that’s exactly what Antonio Neal delivers with his EP Live, Laugh, Love.

The Nashville based singer-songwriter is a Grammy-nominated and Dove Award-winning artist that has lent his talents as a producer, writer and vocalist to artists such as Stacy Orrico, Nicole C. Mullen, ZOEgirl, and Jump 5, and has production credits on Diary of a Mad Black Woman, and Life Every Voice…In Worship, Grits and others.

Live, Laugh, Love is a 4 song EP that musically addresses a very key issue within the Bride of Christ; namely that the Church has seemed to completely ignore the reality that love songs have a place in Gospel music, play a pivotal role in the building up God’s Kingdom, and can serve to redeem the emotional and romantic relationship between husband and wife. In an age where the divorce rate among couples who profess Christ is nearly equal to that of atheists and agnostics (and even hight according to some statistics), this message is very sorely needed.

The title track is a straight ahead, smoothed-out R&B ballad that sets the tone for the album (yes I said album!) with the proclamation that we should all choose to love like we’ve never been hurt before, and no longer let our romantic or emotional past plague our future.  Whatever we’ve done to others or whatever has been done to us no longer matters because today is a new day. Antonio’s vocal drips with the soul tradition of the likes of Al Green and Babyface as he intones,  “All of the hurt, all of the pain, all of the shame; So much of my life I’ve carried this, but I break it today…I choose to Live, Laugh Love..”

The next song, Happy Lover’s Day, is a date night stepping song. Play it as you’re getting ready for a night on the town, or a quite evening at home with your beloved over a nice dessert and your favorite red wine.  Mature, groovy and accessible, this song is meant to be the backdrop to a fantastic evening and personally reminds me of being in Chicago with my wife on a very fun spring night as we celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary.  This track has a very tasty live groove with a well-crafted lyric, and is an especially nice compliment to the jazz guitar that weaves its way around the vocal without overpowering it or distracting from it. This track makes you feel like you’re hearing a great live band.

My personal favorite Always, is a straight neo-soul joint. This jam is a fantastic use of sonic space and stays squarely in the groove. The rhythm section is perfectly in the pocket, the vocal is silky and flawless, and the overall delivery renders me incapable of sitting still.  Honestly, this track takes me someplace else and is one of those songs that I wish I’d written first. This song clearly demonstrates Antonio’s heart toward his wife speaks loud and clear in wonderful groovaliciousness.

If I Could is an intimate and wistful confession of what is means to have found the one that God made uniquely for you. The stripped down guitar and vocal arrangement also showcases Antonio’s songwriting chops without the use of heavy production.  The song demonstrates very well how to “rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Proverbs 5:18 ESV) and hold her above all others. “Only your love satisfies; you’re the perfect piece of Heaven in my life” sums it up beautifully. It reminds of Pastor C.J. Mahaney’s dedication to his wife in his book, Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God that says, “when I walk into a room, you’re the only thing I see in color, the rest of the world is black and white to me”.

Live, Laugh, Love was released in 2008, but I came up on it only recently. Despite the slightly older release date, I just had to say a few words about it. While you’re listening to it, you forget that this is worship and praise music; and the reality is that  it is worship music of the finest caliber. It is spiritual without being ‘churchy’, as well as romantic and sensual without being cheap or banal.

The story of how this EP came to be seems to only improve its quality and makes it more compelling to listen to. The full story is a topic of another article but suffice it to say that as I understand it, Antonio chose to follow the calling he felt the Lord was placing on his heart rather than bend to record label pressure to stick with convention. This album (there’s that word again) speaks of how a lover (husband) is God-ordained to pursue his beloved, and to enjoy her as the young Solomon enjoyed his betrothed in the Old Testament Song of Songs. C.S. Lewis once said of his writings that he was, “smuggling theology into the minds of unsuspecting readers”: Live, Laugh, Love smuggles theology into the ears of unsuspecting listeners and is arguably the best example I can think of in recent memory that demonstrates that to God, there is no difference between the sacred and the secular. Antonio even throws in the instrumental tracks so you can serenade your sweetheart. This thing is bangin’, pure and simple. This EP has been in my daily neo-soul playlist since the day I bought it. The musicianship, arranging and production are top-shelf, and the only thing that I can say against this album is that there aren’t more cuts to enjoy. I give Live, Laugh, Love 4 stars out of 5.

I’d love for you to leave a comment on this review. Also, check out the tracks, buy them & show your support for real music http://www.myspace.com/antonioneal

be blessed fam,

dabrotha

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