At a time when many music fans, contemporary Christian and otherwise, are taking notice of the reunion of legendary CCM trailblazers DC Talk for the Jesus Freak Cruise (and maybe more?), DC Talk member Kevin Max is emphatically stabbing a conquering flag into the ground by releasing SERVE SOMEBODY (pre-order), a solo collection of cover songs deserving of significant attention on its own accord.
The eight-song EP, a selection of cover songs originally performed by artists ranging from Bob Dylan to U2, showcases an artfully-blended marriage of spirituality and rock and roll. With multi-instrumentalist and production wizard John Mark Painter at the helm in the studio and guitar and background vocal contributions from Jimmy Abegg and Fleming McWilliams, the agility of Kevin Max’s creative inclinations and vocal abilities are on full display. From the blues-infused “Righteous Rocker,” (Larry Norman) to the Bono-esque vocal passion that Max channels on “Pride (In The Name Of Love),” (U2), SERVE SOMEBODY makes a case for Kevin Max’s name being included in any conversation about world-class vocalists.
LET THE DAY BEGIN – Originally performed by THE CALL – I was vaguely familiar with the original version of this song, but, Max’s version of this anthemic 80’s classic sounds like it was meant to be his, alone, and I can’t imagine liking any other version more. Artist and guitarist Jimmy Abegg delivers some rocking riffs on this one that would make anybody want to get up and get going. It’s a solid choice to open the EP.
KYRIE – Originally performed by Mr. MR. MISTER – I recognized this song immediately once I started listening to it. Because it is such a unique song with such an ingrained presence in my memory on the radio waves of my youth, I thought it would take some time to really accept this cover as anything but the background noise status the original held for most of my life. I was wrong. After just a couple of listens to Max’s version and a new understanding of what Kyrie eleison actually means (Lord have mercy), it has become one of my favorite tracks on an EP full of strong tracks.
PRIDE (IN THE NAME OF LOVE) – Originally performed by U2 – An iconic hit for U2, “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” is a lightning rod of familiarity that Max did an amazing job of covering. At times, Max’s version sounds just like U2 (his voice relative to Bono’s, in particular), but, Max successfully strikes a balance between reverence for the original and creative artistic license with a version that sounds lonelier, more personal, and introspective than the original.
CREED – Originally performed by Rich Mullins & A Ragamuffin Band – Of the songs covered on this project, “Creed” is the one that I am most familiar with, by far. A LITURGY, A LEGACY, & A RAGAMUFFIN BAND was one of the last Christian CD’s I purchased as high school senior and one of the few that made it back into the rotation once I started finding faith again around the time of the birth of my daughter. “Creed,” is a load-bearing song on the Rich Mullins album it first appeared on. Max scored a major victory in his cover version by retaining the song’s characteristic identity. In terms of musical style, Max’s cover stands alone against the music landscape of 2017, much like the original, and comparable to the way Johnny Cash’s songs stood apart from the general rock and country music markets of his time. This is not a pop radio song. It’s bigger than that — in sound, in weight, and sincerity of sentiment — while still retaining a universal, appeal. Some of the arrangement in the latter half of the song caught me off guard, in terms of tempo, at first listen, but, right around the 2:37 the background vocals lift the song. Of the eight tracks on SERVE SOMEBODY, this one is one of the more creative covers relative to the original songs.
GOTTA SERVE SOMEBODY (SPECIAL ROLL) – Originally performed by Bob Dylan – I’ll state right away that I am a bigger fan of the rock version of this song (see description below), but, that sentiment isn’t meant to take anything away from this one. I love the Mos Eisley Cantina vibe that this one carries — smoky organ, piano bar, muted blues guitar riffs. Like I said, I like to rock version more, but, this, in no way, should be relegated to B-side status and I’m glad that it is included on the EP.
RIGHTEOUS ROCKER – Originally performed by Larry Norman – I absolutely LOVE the opening guitar and vocal riffs on this one! The drums! The hand claps! The vocal fade at the very, very end! This is pure is rock and roll, unbound, and an instant favorite!
RED LETTERS – Originally performed by DC Talk – This cover seems like a direct descendent of Max’s prior covers album collaboration with Painter, STARRY EYES SURPRISE. Relative to the original version of this song, that Max co-created as a member of DC Talk, this cover reveals a darker landscape. But, the hope of the original version from SUPERNATURAL is still present and, perhaps, even more profound, here, painted against the more weathered background of age and experience.
GOTTA SERVE SOMEBODY (ROCKN MIX) – THIS is the spot-on, bulls-eye epitome of the loud, distorted, crunchy guitars that grab me in a rock song! The simple arrangement of heavy guitar riffs, low, fuzzy bass lines, punctuated drums, and cymbals stands as evidence of the validity of the notion that, sometimes, less is more. The soulful background vocals of Fleming McWilliams add a defining ingredient to the recipe that makes this song hit on all eight cylinders, too. In a musical landscape (particularly within contemporary Christian music) populated by gluten-free, organic, salads, this cover of Dylan by Kevin Max is prime rib, well-done.
Overall, I love SERVE SOMEBODY, but, based on only eight tracks, I don’t feel like I can honestly give it a full 5 out of 5 stars. I’d love to have at least nine or ten unique tracks like these (in addition to the alternate version of “Gotta Serve Somebody”) to really dig into as a whole album. I offer this as a sincere, well-intentioned, constructive criticism. The two versions of “You’ve Gotta Serve Somebody,” are warranted because they are so well done, but, I would love a full LP. If that were the case, SERVE SOMEBODY would be worth of a 5/5 rating. That said, I can confidently give it 4.5 starts out of 5.
I would love to see DC Talk go beyond the Jesus Freak Cruise with new music and a nationwide tour. Only time will tell whether or not that will happen. But, with projects like SERVE SOMEBODY (due 7/7 — preorder here) still emerging from the creative well that is Kevin Max, it seems that there’s plenty to look forward to from Kevin Max, with or without DC Talk.
SERVE SOMEBODY by Kevin Max