Is Tenth Avenue North the luckiest band in Christian music or what? Digging through my library, I rediscovered an older song from the band on a 2005 indie artist compilation. It was poorly done to say the least. Yet a couple years later, Provident Music Group snatched them up, polished them off, and voila, Tenth Avenue North made an impression with their national debut, Over and Underneath.
Now I’m not saying the band is without merit. Their previous album has some rather catchy songs, and I’d even reluctantly concede that Tenth Avenue North deserved their New Artist of the Year award at the 2009 Doves. But was “By Your Side” truly worthy of Song of the Year honors for the 2010 Dove Awards? Though I consider it dull and formulaic sounding, it was one of the year’s most (over)played songs on Christian radio—and I suppose that’s your answer.
The heaping helping of accolades has given Tenth Avenue North a lot to live up to with their follow-up album, The Light Meets the Dark. Fortunately for them, it largely does.
Sticking with their winning formula, the band has reteamed with the same producers as their last album. Based on the resumes involved, I’d attribute Tenth Avenue’s soaring sound to Jason Ingram and Rusty Varenkamp (since they’re done the same for Bebo Norman), while Phillip LaRue is more likely responsible for the light alternative pop touches in the mix. But this time Tenth Avenue North sounds less like a softer Switchfoot and more like Jars of Clay gone adult contemporary, and oddly enough, a smidge of Death Cab for Cutie.
Those comparisons prepare you for the indie pop textures heard in the first single, “Healing Begins,” which features beautiful production and melody paired with quirky little bass and guitar parts awash with strings. It suggests a maturing sound reminiscent of Jars of Clay and Future of Forestry, matched to lyrics about finding peace to our brokenness through confession.
This is why I feel Tenth Avenue North is more a success in production than in songwriting. I like the driving pop of “Strong Enough to Save,” which resembles the work of Tree63, Switchfoot, and Chris Tomlin with elements of Future of Forestry and Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida.” Yet I can’t help thinking that without its vibrant sound, the basics of the song might have ended up as another routine, upbeat worship song that sounds like hundreds of others.
No, as good as frontman Mike Donehey is with writing melodies, his lyrics are too often straightforward and plain—again, making the band’s Song of the Year award perplexing, since even Mark Hall of Casting Crowns does more to challenge through his words. This is well-intentioned Christian songwriting designed to lead listeners to embrace the gospel and find comfort in Christ, but I struggle to call it creative or artful.
Nevertheless, “You Are More” is a song offering exactly what a lot of people need to hear, and sure enough, listeners are apparently responding to it. It’s an effective reminder that we’re valued by God not for what we’ve done, but what has been done for us in love. Similarly, “Empty My Hands” may not reinvent the wheel, but it’s still one of those memorably anthemic confessionals about the struggle with temptation. Though it may not be the strongest song musically, the lyrics are a heart’s cry for many of us.
Aside from those highlights, the remainder of The Light Meets the Dark is far from compelling, relying too much on the same modern AC style heard by so many these days. “The Truth Is Who You Are” depicts a relational Jesus, but it’s musically dull until it finally breaks loose at the end. “All the Pretty Thing” attracts with its bright U2-styled pop/rock, but the lyrics about being distracted by the things of this world lack deep insight and fall a little flat. The similarly themed “House of Mirrors,” about focusing on eternal things, is the only song written as a band, and it shows, sounding more like something built by committee than the creation of primary songwriter.
At least “Hearts Safe (A Better Way)” is a catchy enough clap-along about trying to reach a friend uninterested in the gospel. And “Oh My Dear” is a gentle and bouncy orchestrated song inspired by a real-life confession between Donehey and his wife—it could just as easily translate to a conversation between God and any of us.
The Light Meets the Dark is not a bad effort, and considering the production and promotion, the record label is clearly all-in with this band. And I suppose the songs are meaningful enough, if simplistic gospel messages are more your thing than creative lyricism. If only it were all a little more interesting. This is an album with four really good songs offset by seven pleasantly mediocre songs.
There is at least a progression in Tenth Avenue North’s sound here, albeit a small one. Like Leeland before them, the question that remains is whether this is truly one of the best bands in Christian music today, or if it’s really the work of fairly good songwriter matched with a great production budget.
Standouts: “Healing Begins,” “You Are More,” “Empty My Hands”