8.0 BEST NEW RECORD
Ramseur Records / 2015
Thank God for church choirs. Sure, they're a haven for singers who don't have a shot elsewhere, but without them we wouldn't have Liz Vice. Sitting in the pew at Door of Hope church in Portland, she heard the still small voice telling her to try out for the worship band. Though until then her singing had been limited to private venues like the shower, she was a hit at church and quickly started working with her pastor Josh White on extraecclesial activity through his Deeper Well Collective. In 2013, they recorded a ten-song LP she thought would be a quick diversion from her filmmaking career. Instead, the album resonated so powerfully and has gained such steady buzz that Ramseur Records snapped her up and re-released There's a Light nationally last week.
Part of that buzz comes from Leon Bridges, this year's retro-gospel golden boy, who's been vocal on social media about his love of Vice's music. There's significant common ground between Leon and Liz - both were unfamiliar with classic gospel until they somehow found themselves making it. And Bridges' backing band, White Denim, played a similar role to the one Josh White has in Vice's career, recognizing a serious talent and pushing to collaborate on a record together.
White wrote and produced every song on There's a Light, and they have the same straightforward lyrical efficiency that defined his own solo album from last year. That's for the best, because Vice imbues them with such power that frills would just be a distraction. His work behind the boards recalls Jeff Tweedy's recent production for Mavis Staples, bringing a crisp indie rock jangle to the vintage sound. Vice's doesn't just stay in the gospel wheelhouse, though - There's a Light dips into several other genres including soul, R&B, and funk, and far from sounding like the greenhorn she is, she's eminently at-home in each one.
The slow-burner "Abide" kicks the album off with a bass groove so deep it's practically subterranean, and Vice's voice has a natural ease to it as she paints a picture of the church leaving its wordly hopes by the wayside for its imperishable hope in Christ. And on the next track, a thumper called "Empty Me Out" (which features an excellent Hammond organ solo in its last thirty seconds), the surrender is even more intense. She asks the Lord to scrape her heart out like a dirty dish to make more room for Jesus: "Empty me out, fill me with You/Lord, there is nothing I can give to You".
In a recent interview with NPR, Vice recounted the first time she soloed at her church: drenched in sweat, heart hammering and pores gasping, she realized, "This must be how James Brown feels." Her affinity with the Grandmaster goes further than that - "Truly Today" has a seriously funky Wurlitzer lick on it that would get the toes of a paralytic moving. The same goes for "Pure Religion", which is anchored by a dirty garage-blues guitar that sounds like a fifty-pound bumblebee. Nearly every track on There's a Light has one one of these distinctive hooks, and it makes for a record that quickly carves its way into your mind.
The whole thing was recorded on analog tape, which Vice makes rattle and fuzz when she really lets loose on the title track, "There's a Light". With bare-bones percussion and guitar, it smacks of early White Stripes, and Josh White wisely lets her voice make its own case. It pays off, and the song stands as one of the LP's most memorable moments. The other one is "All Must Be Well", where the organ, keys, and whole rest of the band pile up on the cathartic climax as Vice lets herself falls headlong into the peace that passes understanding: "On the Father's love relying/Jesus every need supplying/Whether living or in dying".
The particular grace that comes from facing mortality point blank and still trusting God is all over Liz Vice - she got a death sentence at fifteen when she developed an auto-immune disease. A kidney transplant saved her life years later, but when she sings, it sounds like she's always got a grin on her face, as if she's just been healed (watching an interview with her bears that suspicion out). That joy isn't rooted in herself, though. Rather, it comes from unshakable faith in the deep, deep love of God, which is something you can't fake, no matter how good it makes your music sound.