Self-titled albums are typical for debut artists. When a veteran like Fernando Ortega releases one, it usually signals an artist's taking a new creative path. Indeed, Ortega's first album for Curb Records does just that.
Selling fairly well while also earning critical acclaim, Ortega's albums (now 12 in the last 15 years) have tended to follow the same formulacombining soft contemporary pop with beloved hymns. This album starts with a similar base but builds on it with an alternative folk/pop energy.
That sound is filled out by a terrific band of legendary studio musicians, including fiddle and dobro by bluegrass musicians Gabe and Michael Witcher (who have worked with Willie Nelson and Nickel Creek), percussionist Steve Hodges and bassist Larry Taylor (Tom Waits), and bassist Leland Sklar (James Taylor, Phil Collins). Combined with the strong guitar work of up-and-comer Rich Nibbe and the keyboards of longtime friend and producer John Andrew Schreiner, Ortega's album is sure and steady with thoughtful musicianship.
As a result, we're treated to a song like "Dragonfly," which sports a folk reggae feel more reminiscent of Los Lobos than the simple pop of one of Christian music's most celebrated inspirational artists. "When the Coyote Comes" finds Ortega singing to a bluesy folk/ country rockabilly shuffle. There's also "Noonday Devil," with its more straightforward, guitar-driven, Southern roots rock style.
What's striking about Ortega's music, especially this album, is the ease with which he integrates the sacred and the secular. Most Christian artists tend to lean too far one way or the other, either to minister through song or to reach non-Christians with secular music. Ortega, in contrast, believes that there's room for both in artistic expressionthe sacred can be found in everyday living, and the secular can lead to our greatest epiphanies of faith.
For example, the charming acoustic opener, "California Town," is about his enjoying a quiet night on the town with his wife. You feel like you're on the seaside boardwalk and in the restaurant with themand that the Lord's there too. Another example, the confessional "Sleepless Night" was written during a bout with insomnia:
Hear my anxious prayer, the beating
of my heart
The pulse and the measure of my
Speak your words to me before I
Help me believe in what I cannot
Much like Jesus does in Luke 12 ("Consider how the lilies grow "), "Dragonfly" contrasts the beautiful and worry-free lifestyle of an insect with our many unwarranted worries. "Coyote" plays out like a parable from Ortega's own lifehe imagines his two housecats getting into mischief, straying from their master's house in the middle of the night with a predator lurking outside.
"Noonday Devil" expresses spiritual dryness with the poetry of a Psalm:
Father, you have called me to live a
life that's true
That all my labors and my words
would speak my love to you
But walking through this desert, life
is empty and mundane
The noonday devil has come around
With "Mildred Madalyn Johnson," Ortega pays tribute to an elderly friend and her faith so evocatively that you can picture herserving her community, living alone with her cats, driving a big red car with a steering wheel she can barely see over.
Ortega tugs at the heartstrings even more with "All That Time," which depicts a family gathered around a father's deathbed, reflecting on his life, regretting things that have been left unsaid. It appropriately segues into a sparse rendition of the melancholic yet hopeful hymn "Rock of Ages."
Like the Psalmist, Ortega is comfortable with sharing both fearful doubts and firm faith. "Shame" is a sober confessional, reflecting on past faults and shortcomings. But later he sings about walking confidently with God's grace in "Take Heart, My Friend."
Elsewhere, Ortega alters the melody of "Immortal, Invisible," matching the hymn's enchanting words with a more floating tune and an ethereal arrangement reminiscent of Daniel Lanois (producer of albums by U2 and Peter Gabriel). The album closes with Ortega at the piano prayerfully singing the hymn "More Love to Thee" (which Schreiner sang at Ortega's wedding years ago).
More deftly than ever, then, Ortega has balanced artistry and faith in this album. With the aid of Schreiner and writer Elaine Rubenstein, he is emerging as a songwriter willing to experiment with sounds and styles that offer fresh and practical perspectives on faith.
Russ Breimeier, an online associate editor for ChristianityToday.com, writes music reviews for the online music magazine Christian Music Today (www.christianitytoday. com/music).
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Fernando Ortega is available from Christianbook.com and other music retailers.
For lots more on Ortega's music, Christian Music Today has a Fernando Ortega page with links to articles, interviews, and reviews of other Ortega albums.
More about Fernando Ortega, including dates for his ongoing tour, is available from his website.
A profile of Ortega is available from our sister publication, Today's Christian.
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