Review Summary: The album that P.O.D. was born to make.
Christian-themed music is always a risky business. And it’s fertile land for extremes: you may easily find dreadfully cheesy and unfathomably sublime things. On one hand, you have the embarrassingly bad chants of Neo-Pentecostal megachurches or some pretty sleepy Catholic Mass songs, and on the other side you have (for example) the formidable voices of African American soul-styled singers or the simple beauty of Orthodox-styled and Catholic-styled gregorian chants. So there is a very thin line that divides the preachy from the reverential, and a wide aesthetic sea that separates what sounds upright sublime from what sounds downright awful.
And, in general, that applies to religious-themed rock as well. In this realm, it’s pretty easy to make bad music and pretty damn hard to make good stuff. This sub-genre is an art of subtlety: the more delicate you are to convey your message, the best is your work in a lyrical level. And different religious themes and reflections go hand by hand with different vibes, so you must also have good taste to mash your themes with adequate melodies and tones. It’s all a matter of equilibrium, and that’s exactly what P.O.D. reaches in SoCal Sessions: their most proper point of equilibrium between lyrical and musical vibes.
Once upon a time, in their beginnings, Sonny Sandoval & Co. were (as they say in Brazil, my home country) “subtle as an hippopotamus” in their lyrical content and pretty moralistic. With time, however, they managed to develop smarter lyrics and talk about God or Jesus with metaphors like satellites, simple words such as “you” (in “Alive”) or “love” (referring to Jesus as love itself when Sonny sings “The day that they murdered love”), trying out some lyrics with theologically complex biblical passages (with the song ‘I Am’ – a reference to the quote “I Am Who I Am”, adscribed to God in Exodus 3:14) or even making references to Judaism using terms like Zion and Babylon. To wrap up the point here, Sonny and his bandmates mostly succeed in no sounding cheesy with the Christian messages in their lyrics.
However, even with their distinctive lyrical themes and style, P.O.D. sound just like other dozens of their contemporaries with their traditional riffs – and in the midst of all that, few songs are truly remarkable (like ‘Alive’, ‘Youth of the Nation’ and ‘Boom’). So, the band falls into the pit of monotony and mediocrity like a “blind leading the blind” (yeah, that’s a reference to the lyrics from ‘Youth of the Nation’). And this is why SoCal Sessions set itself apart from the rest of their stuff: in this album they not only embrace an acoustic side, but also find the perfect style for their lyrics replacing distortion and screams with a much more melodic deliver.
As said before, it’s hard to mix rock with Christianity without sounding cheesy, it’s quite a task to be subtle in the transmission of Christian messages within any genre of the broad rock scope and (on top of all that) you got to have good taste to convey a religious message within a good, entertaining jam. And that’s what this album is: a good, entertaining jam. Even if you are a rabid atheist, you can still find the fun in the funky, fast-paced, palm-muted guitars and the melodica licks of “Panic & Run”, a song about the End of Times that sounds like an upbeat, groovy piece on this album and as a weird foray into funk metal or something in its original version.
When you listen to that track and compare it to the original, it almost sounds like it should’ve been always played as an acoustic piece on the first place. And you get that feel with almost all the songs that follow. In “Higher”, for example, the lyrics are so upbeat that, if you hadn’t heard the original version, you probably wouldn’t care to listen to the song with electric guitars. Besides, the acoustic mood fits well with its laid back lyrics that (in a way) celebrate freedom and chilling out:
So you can do what you want
And say what you want
Live how you want
And die how you want
But this faith has put my mind at ease,
My soul’s at peace and my spirit flies free
On another side, if you didn’t know that the band’s overall message and “spirit” is Christian, you wouldn’t even notice that with songs like “No Ordinary Love Song” or “Will You”. They could perfectly be heard as if they were simple love songs. And adding them the simplicity of acoustic guitars and some soft percussion helps them sound like tunes you could perfectly listen to in front of a campfire.
And what about their iconic singles ‘Alive’ and ‘Youth of the Nation’? Well, the band’s style and musical arrangements fit so well with this acoustic style that ‘Alive’ is perhaps the only song in the album that sounds better in its original form. The doubled tracked singing and heavy chorus of the original version aren’t here, but that doesn’t mean that this song doesn’t fit well with an acoustic sound. On the other hand, ‘Youth of the Nation’ retains the haunting delay of the original version, gives the listener a clearer taste of the guitar parts and features an interesting shift of cajón and drums in the percussion.
In conclusion, don’t be fooled by the explicit iconography of the album cover or by P.O.D.’s nu-metal background. Here, the band manages to separate itself from the monotony of many of their heavier efforts, transport the listener to upbeat and downbeat vibes with ease and offer a relaxing, fun and almost non-denominational jam at the same time, spiced with melodicas, some piano bits, acoustic strumming, delay effects and varied percussions (with drums, bongoes and even with the cajón, a well known instrument in Latin American music), instead of the pure nu-metal clichés that they often embrace. And, in that way, they created a consistent record that delivers good tunes from beggining to end.
The band offers nothing revolutionary or wonderfully creative to rock music with SoCal Sessions, but they do put a refreshing effort and give a solid twist to their own music. Besides, who on Earth said that an album needs to be revolutionary in order to be good? Very few manage to be both at the same time. So prepare your campfire, make a good barbecue by a pool, walk through the streets or ride your car on a highway to the tune of SoCal Sessions… and good trip.