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Isaiah Owens - You Without Sin Cast the First Stone

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Artist: Isaiah Owens

Album: You Without Sin Cast the First Stone

Label: CaseQuarter

Review date: Jul. 14, 2004

Like any other musical idiom, gospel is susceptible to commercialization. God’s music sells units just like anything else under heaven. Consequently, it’s always refreshing to encounter a musician who tosses considerations of the Almighty Buck to the proverbial curb and worship’s his Lord in the way he sees fit. Isaiah Owens is such an artist and You Without Sin Cast the First Stone, his CaseQuarter debut (and the second auspicious release from the Montgomery, Alabama label), staunchly circumvents the pratfalls of its more antiseptic brethren. BeBe Winans this ain’t.

Owens suggests quite a striking persona if the disc’s liners and photos are any indication. Shiny silver faux satin suit, zebra-spotted cowboy hat and amber-tinted shades – these are the trappings of a man comfortable in his own skin. A forty-five year tenure as a member of the Flying Clouds of Montgomery afforded him plenty of time to hone a vocal style that fused a growling bark to an equally spine-tingling falsetto (Tom Waits in the service of the Holy Book). Over that lengthy stretch he also found time to perform with various other vocal groups including the Gospeliares and the Deacon Jesse McWhorter. Sometime in the early 1980s he taught himself guitar and his already church-filling voice gained a formidable ally. CaseQuarter honcho Kevin Nutt recounts the rest of his colorful history in the disc’s informative liner notes.

Owens’ music represents a swiftly dwindling breed, cut from the same bolt of spiritual cloth as other street corner preachers as the Reverend Louis Overstreet and Utah Smith (the overdue subject of an upcoming project on the label). Most of the disc’s 18 cuts (the final four are bonus tracks included only on the first pressing and are well worth acquiring) originate from airshot tapes and live field recordings of recent vintage. There’s even a track where Owens accompanies the improvised script of a radio tire commercial with spidery riffing. Static and other sonic detritus litters the music in places, but the blemishes are only slightly intrusive and the coarse texture of the fidelity actually compliments Owens’ hoary voice and oft-out of tune guitar. He fares better on the solo pieces where his highly personal style of chording doesn’t conflict with the more genteel harmonies of extraneous singers. Standouts among these include an absolutely riveting rundown of “I’ll Fly Away,” where sharp-clawed leonine guitar riffs bracket a string of soaring choruses, Owens entreating his God for succor from mortal life’s travails, and “I Been Down To The Water” a tale of his finding a path through the wilderness by way of cleansing sacramental waters.

At nearly an hour, the program can pale in places over a single sitting. Owen’s style isn’t about ornamentation or easily-digestible artifice. The stark nature of his delivery takes a patient ear. Stack it up against the bromidic hymnals that often pass for worship music these days and any minor pain seems a paltry price to pay. One thing I do know for certain, they don’t make them like Owens any more. The man is the genuine article and his music gives every indication that the angels are smiling from on high.

By Derek Taylor

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