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Soundbite

Our critics' picks in new releases

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Unlimber your notions of what a gospel album should sound like. On their latest release, Diamond Jubilation, the venerable gospel quintet the Dixie Hummingbirds celebrate their 75th anniversary by rewriting the book on how to hook up with the Big Guy in song. In 1973, the Hummingbirds were one of the first black gospel groups to break into the mainstream when they recorded "Loves Me Like A Rock" with Paul Simon, then won a Grammy for covering the same song on an album of their own. The same album also featured Stevie Wonder's "Jesus Children of America" with Wonder on keyboard.

The Birds have a different set of rockers on board this time, utilizing the services of The Band's Levon Helm on drums and Garth Hudson on keys and accordion. Dr John also contributes his night trippin' fonk to a couple of cuts. But it is The Band's influence that's felt the most. Thanks to Hudson's rollicking accordion, "God's Radar" is like having church, Zydeco style.

The group changes gears quickly with the next cut, "He Watches Out For You And Me," which has a more traditional vocal sound. Even though there's celestial soul in the vocals, the accompaniment is pure R&B.

"Someday" has the classic Hummingbird uptown gospel sound--smooth and sophisticated. But before you get too comfortable with the smooth, Ira Tucker--who has been a Bird since 1938 (when he was 13)--puts a healthy amount of rasp on top of the vocals to let you know you're dealing with the voice of experience. This is what a ministry of music is supposed to sound like.

The Birds always kept it simple--just those magnificent voices were all you heard when they began in 1928. Then, starting in the '50s, they were backed by guitarist Howard Caroll and a boom box. Even though there's a full band on this one, they stay out of the way, enhancing the music with their presence but never interfering with the main business at hand.

It sounds good to have the Lord on your side, and the Dixie Hummingbirds have never sounded better.

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