Unplucked (Independent)
Zen Penguin

By Robert Gruber

It would be a real shame for anyone to judge this one by its cover, because the sight of a cartoon penguin staring out from under a title like Unplucked could lead folk to believe this is silly stuff — trust me, it ain't! Unplucked is a shining debut, on par with anything coming out of Nashville in terms of sound and songwriting.

I'm amazed at how good home-brewed production is getting around here. Zen Penguin recorded at Melody Hill Studios, under the auspices of Vince Emmett (ex-Shaking Family) and Charles Ellis. Using a minimal palette of guitars, percussion and strings, Z.P. creates a stirring blend of emotion, honesty and inspiration, similar to Jars of Clay (minus the hip hop beats). The sweet harmonic interplay between Robbin McGraw, Joe Ford, Ralph Thumas and Dave Evans reminds me of vintage Jesus music from the '70s.

The Jesus music feel is in the lyrics, too. Very straightforward — none of the vague poetics and ponderous allusions that clutter so much of CCM today. I like the message in "Triple By-Pass": "I'm thankful for the beating of this muscle in my chest / and I'm thankful for each moment I'm allowed to take a breath / It's the simple things I am grateful for today / and I find to keep them all, I must give them all away / I must give each beat away. . . ." I also like the idea in "Turtle," of softening one's shell. "James' Song" is a touching elegy to a loved one lost, but not forever: "Death is but a seed for life to come."