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Natalie Grant
Relentless (Curb/Warner Records)
Released February 2008
reviewed by Russ Breimeier

Sounds like … Kelly Clarkson, Celine Dion, Nichole Nordeman, and BarlowGirl through an eclectic array of adult contemporary, pop, rock, and R&B;

At a glance … picking up right where Awaken left off, Relentless finds Natalie Grant pushing herself musically and thematically to offer more than the usual Christian pop

Natalie Grant is a case study in artist development. She started out in 1999 like so many other gifted vocalists in Christian music—performing pleasant-but-forgettable pop songs that failed to leave a lasting impression or distinguish her from her peers. Today, she's on the A-list, and one of the few pop divas still active in Christian music.

What changed? Well, it certainly helps to be married to a talented producer like Bernie Herms, collaborating to stretch and shape the sound into a distinctive blend of pop and rock. But then Grant always sounded great, even when the songs were mediocre. The real key has been Grant's willingness to openly share her heart through personalized songwriting about self-image, human trafficking, and finding purpose. Her appropriately titled 2005 project Awaken rightly earned her acclaim and success for pushing herself both spiritually and artistically.

Three years later, Grant proves that her growth is no fluke. Taking inspiration from stories and testimonies shared through Women of Faith's Revolve Tour for teen girls, Relentless is ever bit as excellent as Awaken, this time focused on finding hope amid life's challenges.

It also finds Grant successfully varying her sound from track to track. The opening "I Will Not Be Moved" (about how brokenness grounds us) rocks harder than some might expect from a singer once compared to Celine Dion and Mariah Carey. In contrast, "Make It Matter" shows off a rowdier, electronic R&B; style asking God to use our lives to make a difference. I absolutely adore the stripped-down bluesy soul of "So Long," one of those "farewell to the old self" songs performed with slick acoustic guitar, horns, percussion, and lots of playful attitude. And even though "In Christ Alone" feels a little tacked on as a token worship cover (originally from WoW Worship [Aqua]), it truly is a brilliant rendition that offers something fresh to the familiar arrangement.

Fans of Awaken are probably wondering if there are songs as powerful and moving as "Home" and "Held." Indeed, Relentless has four. "Our Hope Endures" re-teams Grant with "Held" songwriter Christa Well for a sweeping ballad that points to our reason for hope amid tough questions of why the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Co-written by Plumb, "Safe" is an anti-cutting anthem about finding solace in God, evolving from soft horn ambience to full-blown orchestrated pop. As a longtime fan of Nichole Nordeman, Grant has never sounded more like the introspective singer/songwriter than on "Make a Way," a six-minute piano-and-cello ballad that's almost country in its storytelling of a girl's journey from physical and emotional abuse to healing and purpose.

All excellent, but I'd give the edge to "Back at My Heart," an anthem co-written with Matthew West that begins from a place of personal vulnerability: "Strong on the outside but coming apart at the seams/That's me/Tragically always together, but bruised underneath/That's me/I stand just to stumble, I trip on my pride/Why do I always try to hide?" It then shifts to God's role as the one who welcomes and mends us: "Patiently waiting to pick up the pieces of me/That's you/Healer of hearts when the world leaves it broken in two/That's you." It's the sort of meaningful and symmetrical songwriting that deserves to wins awards.

Wish I could say the same for every track. "Perfect People" is enjoyable, but we've heard plenty of "come as you are" songs just like it over the last 20 years. The same could be said of "Let Go" with its familiar lyrics of surrender, template Christian pop sound, and "uh-oh" hook. "Wonderful Life" is also rather typical, about enjoying the moment we're currently living, but the explosive chorus is fun.

Of course, how many pop albums do you know of where every song is a home run? Relentless is a little routine at times, but it's never badly done, and you'll walk away from it remembering the skillful songwriting and poignant messages of the highlights. And how often do pop artists seem to skew too young or old with their pop sound? Grant, in her mid-thirties, appropriately resides somewhere between as an artist that teens and their moms can get equally excited about. How easy it would be for Natalie Grant to return to predictable pop. How fortunate for us that she's forging her own path instead, pursuing excellent pop songs worthy of her considerable vocal skills.

Natalie Grant
Relentless (Curb/Warner Records)
Released February 2008
reviewed by Russ Breimeier

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