|Heavenly Harmonies | Posted August 28, 2013
Family group The Isaacs, who began singing together 35 years ago, have long been a favorite in country and southern gospel circles. The band is mother Lily Isaacs and her children, Ben Isaacs (bass), Sonya Isaacs Yeary (mandolin) and Rebecca Isaacs Bowman (guitar). Each sibling is respected in his/her own right: Ben is an award-winning producer, nominated for seven GMA Dove Awards this year— three with the family— including Producer of the Year. Sonya and Becky, in addition to being lauded songwriters whose songs have been recorded by many, are often asked to lend their voices as background singers (Sonya has worked with artists like Reba McIntyre, Brad Paisley, Trisha Yearwood and Vince Gill, while Becky has worked with legendary names such as Paul Simon, Alabama, Dolly Parton, Don Williams and Merle Haggard).
Together, the family is a tight unit whose unique sound mixes bluegrass, country, contemporary, and southern gospel, among other genres. The siblings' hallmark three-part harmonies are so precise and intricate that, according to industry giant Bill Gaither, "[they] have stumped the most astute music scholars."
The songs on their latest release, The Living Years, are primarily covers of classics and hits from the past, presented in an intimate acoustic style which casts a bright spotlight on the group's matchless vocal blend. The project debuted at #1 on both the Bluegrass and Southern Gospel Billboard Charts, and at #9 on the Contemporary Christian Album Chart. Jointly produced by Gaither and Ben Isaacs, it aims to reproduce on record what The Isaacs do on stage.
The Isaacs' treatment of the Mike + The Mechanics hit "The Living Years" pushes the lyrics front and center, revealing how effectively this song communicates the complexities of family generational dynamics. It's a cautionary reminder to neither leave important things unsaid nor wait too long to compromise or make amends.
Verses and a bridge were added to an old spiritual chorus Bill Gaither discovered, creating "Walk Together Children." Backed by only a touch of percussion, Gaither adds his famous "boom, boom" to the siblings' harmonies, while Lily rounds out the sound. The ensemble delivers a terrific, timeless piece about walking in faith as the body of Christ.
The Dottie Rambo classic "If That Isn't Love" begins tenderly with Becky on lead, supported by Ben and Sonya. The trio's voices soon swell and soar as they carry the tear-jerking words that convey the depth of Jesus' love. If by song's end, Becky, Ben, and Sonya haven't completely stolen your breath, you'll exclaim "wow!" while wiping the tears away.
It's time for some fun with "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive." Before the younger crowd gets the wrong idea, this isn't School House Rock. The Isaacs learned the arrangement by watching YouTube videos of Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters' famous rendition of this American classic. The ladies sound terrific here, and it's great that a 40's hit still has feet. Novelty aside, the tune is sound advice for life.
Lily takes lead on a moving performance of "For Those Tears I Died," which is followed by a jaw-dropping, flawless group a capella display on the classic hymn "I Must Tell Jesus."
Sonya and siblings shine on the Judds favorite "Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Old Days)," lending a sensitivity and sincerity that rivals the original while proving the song is deeper than sentimentality. It's a commentary on love and commitment, and if you've been impacted by divorce, this song may break your heart.
The tempo picks up with the George Speer toe-tapper "Daniel Prayed." It's full-on bluegrass, and it's a joy!
Though the album is mainly covers, The Isaacs do offer up some originals. The first is "I Wanna Be There," a gripping, country-flavored number that relates stories about earthly struggles while looking forward to their heavenly cures.
Pennywhistle and fiddle add an ethereal quality to the dazzling "I Am a Child of God," another example of impeccable harmony bringing a beautiful lyric to life.
A new composition by Bill and Gloria Gaither and Buddy Green, "Leave It All On The Altar," has a Fats Domino-type bass line and New Orleans blues feel. Ben doesn't often get a lot of attention as a vocalist, but he's clearly in his element here. And the lyrics, with allusions to Jesus' garden tears and His carrying of the cross, are inspired.
"I Know Who Holds Tomorrow" begins with a measured solo vocal from Becky that is later augmented by her brother and sister's contributions. The sisters' full-voiced blend is formidable.
With its accordion accompaniment, the second Isaacs original, "Shalom My Home," is a unique, arresting melodic piece that resembles an old Jewish folk song. Lily, a child of German-Jewish Holocaust survivors, impresses on this nod to her heritage – both familial and musical.
The Isaacs close with a rendering of "The Lord's Prayer" that, for all its homegrown reverence, could hold its own beside any classical singer's performance of the song.
The familiar Isaacs' family instruments are here— upright bass, mandolin, guitar— but one of the strengths of this record is that it so perfectly captures the magic of the group's harmonies. The family is skilled at vocal arrangement, and these unpretentious acoustic recordings are outstanding. Acoustic versions of songs can often sound like demos, unfinished and lacking polish. These songs lack nothing. In fact, it would have been a sin to add anything more to them.
Along with incredible harmonies, lyrics are consistently accentuated on this project, so it's fitting that The Isaacs chose to rely on time-tested material. But don't dismiss their originals – they do far more than pass muster.
If you are unfamiliar with The Isaacs, The Living Years is an excellent introduction. It's a jewel of a record, a time capsule documenting spectacular moments normally found only in a live setting, here preserved to enjoy forever.
Song to Download Now:
"If That Isn't Love" (Get it on iTunes here.)
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