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VINYL RECORD REVIEW:The Hemphills – I Can Smile (1986)

The Hemphills – I Can Smile (1986)

By 1986, the Benson Company had dropped the Heartwarming label as lots of changes were going on within the company during that time, and in the process, the Hemphills signed with RiverSong Records.  RiverSong was actually started in 1983 by Bill Traylor, and by 1986, groups such as the Speers, Cathedrals, Singing Americans, and others had signed on with the label, and in a unique move the Benson Company bought out RiverSong, and basically replaced Heartwarming with the new imprint.

With the upheaval within the Benson Company, Wayne Hilton had left and began working with Squire Parsons as he began to develop his own independent label, Passage Records.  Enter, Lari Goss.  Much like the arrangement with Wayne Hilton co-producing with Trent Hemphill, Lari Goss was brought on to co-produce this album with Trent. Still, you can definitely hear Lari’s unique fingerprints on the Hemphills’ sound as this album bares his trademark sound and feel with big arrangements and orchestrations, thrusting the Hemphills style into a new era, giving them a bit more sophistication and finesse.

Much like the cover for their “Excited!” album, the cover for “I Can Smile” is unique and very bright.  Bright yellow is not a color you often see on album covers, but given the bright feel of the title, it really worked very well for the group, and the cover shot was very bright and cheerful as well.  There was no doubt, this album would stand out on the record rack at their concerts and in the record stores!

The album kicks off with the fun and infectious title song, “I Can Smile”.  Known for her infectious smile, the song features LaBreeska on the second verse and then Candy bringing it home on the final choruses.  The song was such a catchy tune, and it did well in the chart, topping out at #8 twice, in October and then again in December of 1986.  I had mentioned this in another article, but the Hemphills excelled at delivering the goods on those lively, up-tempo tunes, and an interesting statistic, is that out of 30+ chart songs for the group, only 6 of them were slower ballads or anthems.

Speaking of slower ballads, LaBreeska slows the tempo down as she takes another turn at the mic singing, “All Under the Blood” (one, of two “blood” songs on this recording), and does a great job on the song.  Prior to hearing this album and this particular version of the song, I had actually heard a local group sing this song, and that group was the Watchman Quartet, and the song was sung by their tenor, Denny Sutton, who is the father of Triumphant Quartet’s tenor, David Sutton.  I fell in love with the Watchman Quartet’s version of the song, and it still ranks as one of my favorite songs they sang, but I enjoy hearing LaBreeska’s rendition of the song.

Joey picks the tempo back up as he sings the bouncy, “The Miracle Man”, a song that he and his dad wrote together before Candy steps up to sing the stirring anthem, “We’re Bringing Back the King”.  Written by Joel along with Candy and Lari Goss, the song was one of the few anthem/power ballads that the Hemphills recorded, and it was such an amazing song.  I fell in love with it the very first time I heard it, as it was something totally different for the Hemphills.  Tastefully orchestrated, the song is a challenge for the church to, “spread the gospel of the Kingdom, ‘cause we’re bringing back the King!”  I adore the dynamics of the song with how it starts off gently and as the beat gets stronger and stronger, the song builds to its big and powerful ending.

Closing out the first side, “It’s Alright to Praise the Lord” is a fun praise song that is typical for the Hemphills with Joel taking the lead and then Candy doing her thing on the final choruses.  This would have been a great radio song as it’s catchy and fun to sing along with.  Candy did a phenomenal job with her updated arrangement, giving it a rugged country feel on her 1999 solo recording, “No Turning Back”.

The black gospel feel of “Jesus Built this Church on Love” kicks off the second side and was totally different than anything the Hemphills had ever done, and the addition of the Bobby Jones Singers made the song complete.  The song was a hit and charted for the group, peaking at #7 in May 1987.  I will admit, when I first heard the song, I wasn’t a fan, but the song grew on me as time went on and it’s become one of my favorite Hemphill tunes.  Triumphant Quartet did an outstanding version of the song on their 2009 recording, “Everyday”.

With no musical intro, Joel very solemnly sings, “There’s just a fine line on the scales of time…”, as he sings the reflectively prophetic song, “Sometimes I Wonder”.  Written by Joel along with Lari Goss, the song has an acoustic/bluegrass feel to it but also has some blues undertones to it as well and is one of my personal favorite songs from the recording.  Funny story, the Hemphills never staged this song, and Joel has a friend in Louisiana who would scold Joel for never staging the song!  I tend to agree…it’s an awesome and timely song.

Joey is featured next on another “blood” song entitled, “Let the Blood of Calvary Speak for Me”, which Joel co-wrote with Candy and Lari.  Nicely orchestrated, this was a big concert favorite for the Hemphills and has been recorded by several artists including Walt Mills, who did an excellent job when he recorded it on his 1996 recording, “He Knows the Way” and most recently by Greater Vision on their 2015 recording, “As We Speak”.

Joel picks up the tempo as he sings the rustic, Southern Gospel feel of, “I Laid it All Down”, which also features Candy taking the lead on the final chorus.  The song has the old Hemphills feel to it and was a nice inclusion for the recording before things finish out with another amazing power ballad, “Jesus Saves”.  With its lilting piano intro, the song features Joel at the beginning (I love LaBreeska’s callbacks on the second chorus), then Joey takes the lead on the bridge and final chorus.  As the song reaches its mighty crescendo for the finale, it just about leaves you breathless when it’s over.  It’s a phenomenal song and was the perfect closing song for this album.  Several years later, Candy recorded the song on her 1998 solo recording, “Fully Alive” with special guest vocalist, Guy Penrod.  The song became a Gaither Homecoming favorite with Candy being joined by David Phelps on later performances.

In 1986, Candy also came out with her 3rd solo album, “Arms of Love”, which was produced by Lari Goss and released on the Impact label, which was one of the contemporary arms of the Benson Company.  The album had a strong CCM/Inspirational feel and featured several songs written by Candy along with her dad, as well as with David Binion (songwriter of the Nelons’ classic tune, “O For a Thousand Tongues”).  The song also features an outstanding rendition of one of my favorite Andrae Crouch tunes, “Oh, it is Jesus”.  Also, later in 1986, the Hemphills released a double album filled with classics and hit songs called, “Classics”.  Along with previously released Hemphill favorites such as “Sing the Glory Down”, “God Likes People”, “He’s Still Working on Me”, “Good Things” and others, the release featured some new recordings of a few hymns such as “Where Could I Go”, “Victory in Jesus”, “I Love to Tell the Story”, “Precious Memories” and “When We All Get to Heaven”.  The recording kicks off with “It’s Alright to Praise the Lord”, which was also included on the “I Can Smile” album, which had just been released prior to this “Classics” album, which I thought was a bit odd.  Nonetheless, it’s an eclectic collection of songs and is a rare find for vinyl collectors.

“I Can Smile” definitely had a slicker and more sophisticated feel to it than their last few albums.  Lari Goss enhanced the Hemphill sound tremendously and created a fantastic album.  One thing I noticed with this album, is that it’s very subtle…Joel is taking the melody on fewer songs and rather than following the tried-and-true formula with someone else maybe taking the verse and then Joel taking the lead on the chorus, I am finding Candy, Joey or LaBreeska are carrying the lead throughout the whole song on more selections than before, which is an arrangement they adopted for the remaining albums in their discography.

I bought my copy of “I Can Smile” (along with “Revival”) when I saw the group in July 1988 in Raleigh, NC.  I had already heard a couple of songs from the album on the radio and was thrilled to add it to my collection and I have loved the recording from the first listen.  It’s an outstanding album and ranks as one of my personal favorites by the Hemphills.  It’s a wonderfully paced album that I felt truly highlighted the family harmony, showcased each vocalist perfectly, and greatly enhanced their sound overall.

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James Hales

James Hales, from Durham, North Carolina, has been a writer for AbsolutelyGospel.com since 2000. James is our featured reviewer and also contributes to monthly features periodically.
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