Sounds like … the alternative pop and folk of acclaimed singer/songwriters like Aimee Mann, Sara Groves, Sheryl Crow, Shawn Colvin, and Sarah McLachlan

At a glance … Sandra McCracken finds a near-perfect balance of Christian inspiration, poetry, and introspection on Red Balloon, and thus offers what could well be her most accessible effort to date

It'd be more shocking that Sandra McCracken is relatively unknown among the Christian music community if that wasn't the case with most other faith-based singer/songwriters. But those familiar with her work are well aware of her obvious talents. As for the uninitiated, McCracken's latest is the best album Sara Groves never made. Which only makes some since, as McCracken, her husband Derek Webb, and Groves have all toured together and grown increasingly familiar with each other's music.

Last year, McCracken had her first child, and pregnancy left her wondering how it would affect her songwriting. Turns out new motherhood made her more prolific, eager to get back to writing and recording in the home studio—and not just songs about parenting either. These sessions yielded Red Balloon, named after the classic movie as a symbol of childhood, hope, and freedom.

With every release, McCracken's sound has gradually evolved beyond the confines of simplistic folk and acoustic pop. Now she's embraced more of an alternative pop ambience. "On the Outside" sounds like a more alternative-influenced Groves, "Saturn's Fields" resembles Sarah McLachlan gone Sigur Ros, and "Lose You" is similar to Aimee Mann, richly textured with guitar, banjo, bells, and organ.

It's also a pleasure to hear McCracken's songwriting more plainly. "Storehouse" expresses the limitless love of a parent, while "Halfway" likens a heart to a cup being filled with love. "Guardian" in some ways resembles a lullaby to a child, and with the Psalm-inspired lyricism, clearly evokes our heavenly Father comforting his children: "When you are afraid, look out to the mountains … To the one who keeps you safe/When you go out, when you come home/Like a hat, like a shield, I'll be your guardian." McCracken is equally soothing singing about "The Tie That Binds," referring to the curse of sin we all share, and the redemption we find through Jesus' sacrifice. She also includes a more alternative sounding version of "The High Countries," previously heard on Caedmon's Call's Back Home and derived from the writings of C.S. Lewis.

In addition to iTunes, the album is available at NoiseTrade, allowing you to pay what you want to download it, or get it for free by telling friends about it. For reasons not entirely clear, the CD version of the album is packaged as a pair of EPs, rather than a single disc. That oddity aside, Red Balloon is probably McCracken's most accessible effort to date, and intentionally so as she admits her past albums focused "on the sound of words and melodies over the communication of specific ideas." Here she strikes a near-perfect balance of discernable-yet-poetic faith-based songwriting—further proof of McCracken hitting her stride.

Red Balloon
Our Rating
4½ Stars - Excellent
Average Rating
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Release Date
March 3, 2009
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