a soulful breakout

Mercy (Myrrh/Word)
Bryan Duncan

By Allen Howie

The "blue-eyed soul" of artists like Hall & Oates, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald has fallen on hard times and nearly-deaf ears these days. Maybe that's what makes Bryan Duncan's Mercy such an unexpected treat, one that manages to be polished without being slick and heartfelt without getting sappy.

The album kicks off in fine form with "Mercy Me," a dance number with some spicy horn charts, punchy rhythms and energetic singing reminiscent of the best of Kenny Loggins. Duncan banks that fire a little (but just a little) on the melodic swing of "Step by Step." Over a taut rhythm section and feverish background vocals, the singer poses some tough questions, in the process offering a view of spiritual maturity as a process, not an event.

If he accomplishes nothing else on the album, Duncan deserves credit for coaxing David Pack, the silken-voiced singer from Ambrosia, back into the studio. Pack contributes stellar backing vocals on several tracks, including "Into My Heart," a gentle reminder to walk the walk we talk, and the gorgeous "You Don't Leave Me Lonely," a touching farewell to a lost loved one that finds enduring strength through faith.

A consistent (and refreshing) theme on Mercy is Duncan's refusal to dodge hard personal issues and his insistence on forging ahead even in the face of opposition or obstacle. The serene "When It Comes to Love" for example, acknowledges that love is hard work, then shrugs and takes the plunge anyway. The jazzy rhythms of "Looks a Lot Like Me," anchor a pointed call to action, acknowledging the need for change, then shouldering his share of the responsibility and urging us to do the same.

The singer's aim isn't always true, though. "Love Takes Time" drifts listlessly along, in spite of a strong performance by Duncan. Far more focused are the dense, moody "Faithful to You" and the angular introspection of "I'll Not Forget You," in which the virtues of trust and patience are played out across the Old Testament lives of Abraham and Sarah.

The album closes as it began, on the dance floor, with "Five Smooth Stones," an uptempo duet with Crystal Lewis that provides toe-tapping incentive to anyone staring at long odds. It's the perfect point of reference for a record that deserves a wider audience than it's likely to find in the Christian section of your local record store. Anyone who likes thoughtful, melodic pop with smart lyrics and a beat you can dance to will finds lots to sing about on Mercy.