Review: Songs from the Hebrew Scriptures / Songs from the New Testament - Why Not Sea Monsters?

For many artists, children's music is a side project. If you're Justin Roberts, however, you're already a children's music artist, so what's your side project? It's recording as Why Not Sea Monsters? with frequent collaborator Liam Davis.

In late 2005, Roberts and Davis released two Why Not Sea Monsters CDs -- Songs from the Hebrew Scriptures and Songs from the New Testament. Most of you will recognize that these albums have a distinctly... Biblical aspect to them. (My readers, they're sharp.) Roberts was commissioned to write many of these songs by Augsburg Fortress Publishers, he wrote a few more when deciding to record the album, and added a couple covers.

To put in context my review of the album's music, I should explain to you my history with Christian music.

Which is to say, virtually none. Aside from my U2 albums (upon which some churches are basing entire services), the only Christian music album I've ever owned was Amy Grant's Unguarded, and I didn't buy it for the praise music. I bought it because the music was good. The message was secondary. (That's still the case today, even though I'm now an active member of a mainline Protestant church.)

For the most part, the music here is good. Those of you expecting Meltdown! Bible Stories, as Roberts and Davis dial back some of the tempo and layering of instruments found on that album. Instead, they're content to play mostly midtempo acoustical songs in the manner of "Roller in the Coaster" off Way Out or "Koala Bear Diner" off Meltdown!. Given that many of these songs may end up in Sunday School curricula, the fact that many of these songs are little more than guitar and drums and/or bass, the simplicity is appropriate. (Each of the 35-or-so-minute discs include chords and lyrics.)

The best songs are those where Roberts lets his humor shine and he puts his own spin on stories so familiar that most people, Christian or not, would recognize them. On the sweet and poppy "Why Not a Spark?," Roberts' narrator tells of God choosing what to bring forth at the Creation, but he keeps getting ahead of himself ("On the fifth day / God said, why not sea monsters / Why not starfish and lobsters / why not airplanes over water / Wait that's later!"). Or Daniel in the lion's den who beckons the lion with "Here kitty kitty / Won't you come kitty kitty" ("Here Kitty Kitty"). As a whole, Roberts has written Christian music without much trace of sappiness.

I found the songs on Songs from the Hebrew Scriptures more enjoyable, and maybe that's because my raised-not-in-Sunday-School theological foundations are pretty weak and I was drawn to the more familiar stories in the Old Testament. Hebrew Scriptures also has the advantage of having Roberts cover Craig Wright's "Where Were You?," a beautiful hymn ("Where were you when I crafted you a language... / So you could live and die with dignity / And shake your fist with poetry, imagining creation from the first") for which Roberts and Davis pull out all the instrumental tricks (strings, for example) they've otherwise left in the bag. It's an absolutely gorgeous song. On the other hand, New Testament's stories are less familiar and the songs aren't as compelling ("Lydia" has the lyric "Her name was Lydia / Our hearts will never be rid of ya," which, I'm sorry, bugs the heck out of me).

Biblical songs can probably be sung at any age, but I think the morals and religious precepts contained within the songs are most appropriate for kids aged 3 through 10. You can hear samples by going through the Sea Monsters website.

In the end, this is a Christian music album, and there's no two ways around it. Having said that, I think you just need a basic Christian belief system (regardless of whether you attend church regularly) to enjoy the CDs. [And, as a reader subsequently pointed out to me, the Hebrew Scriptures CD is appropriate for persons of the Jewish faith as well.] Regardless of your faith, if you're not sure these are for you, start off with Hebrew Scriptures. Recommended.