Various Artists

Testify!: The Gospel Box

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Certainly, it seems like it would be easy to compile a definitive gospel box set, much like Rhino's definitive Doo Wop Box. After all, much classic gospel was never widely distributed and has been out of print for years, and many listeners would like one sweeping set that captures the best of the music. This is especially true since gospel is always mentioned as an influence, on everything from rock to rap, but there's no good, basic introduction to the music for neophytes or curious listeners. It would seem that Rhino's three-disc set Testify: The Gospel Box would be the answer, but it suffers from two perennial Rhino curses -- a desire to tell a full chronology and a yen for novelty. It could be argued that completeness is a virtue in a box set, since it can be nice to get the full scope of an artist's career, but it's considerably more difficult when the set is simply about one particular genre. Testify runs from the beginning of the '40s to the end of the '90s -- an enormous amount of time to consolidate into one set. Especially when most casual fans of gospel (ie, rock fans) have, at best, a passing interest in gospel recorded past 1970 or 1972, which accounts for the last two discs of the three disc set. And that means, of course, that only the first disc covers the golden era of gospel, the music that both the casual and the devoted consider to be recorded gospel's peak years. To be sure, there's some great music on this disc, but it's marred by novelty tunes -- "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," "Stalin Wasn't Stallin'" -- that are of interest to collectors, but hardly provide the basic introduction that the set intends to provide. There's enough great music on the first disc to balance out the novelties on the whole, but that one disc isn't enough for many listeners, since the classic gospel disappears so quickly. Disc two is devoted to music recorded in the '70s and early '80s, disc three picks up where that left off, taking listeners all the way to the end of the century. In theory, this is good and some listeners may even want a set that runs through the history of recorded gospel, which this certainly provides. Problem is, Testify isn't satisfying listening -- it's merely a textbook, tracing the evolution of gospel. Instructive it may be, but like many textbooks, it doesn't bring the music to life, which is a sad irony for such a joyous music.

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