Editor’s note: After this review was completed and scheduled to automatically load, yesterday’s news included the announcement of Troy Peach leaving the Perrys. While this review is of a pre-release of the CD, and the final release will include vocals by new baritone Bryan Walker, this pre-release is just simply too strong to leave unreviewed. So, with that caveat, here’s the initial review; I anticipate doing a follow-up of the final release.

Ten years ago the Perrys redefined their sound with an alto/lead/baritone/bass vocal lineup. Their first two mainline releases with this lineup, Changed Forever and This is the Day—and hit songs like “I Rest My Case at the Cross,” “Calvary Answers For Me,” “I Wish I Could Have Been There,” and “Damascus Road”—established their niche, their unique and instantly recognizable sound. Several recordings later, each working within and building upon their signature sound, the Perrys raised the bar with their 2007 release, Look No Further, featuring their strongest selection of songs to date.

Last year’s release, Almost Morning, was somewhat more experimental than its predecessors. Song arrangements influenced by Cajun, swing, and progressive styles were paired with other songs in more familiar styles (most notably, the #1 hit and Song of the Year “If You Knew Him”), with a varied final result.

Blue Skies returns to the musical territory that brought the Perrys to the top—with stellar results.

The opening track, “Blue Skies,” is an uptempo track with a musical feel described as “I Know it Was the Blood” plus a prominent banjo part (hat tip to Nate Stainbrook for suggesting the comparison).

Lead singer Joseph Habedank co-wrote the second track, “Grace Doesn’t Remember,” with two new collaborators, Kelly Garner and Amy Keffer-Shellem. This power ballad is an obvious pick for a radio single.

The Perrys always include a convention song on each project—sometimes brand-new (“Every Question Will Be Answered”), sometimes familiar (“I Love to Tell”), and sometimes almost forgotten and as good as new (“Come and Get Me”). They take the third course here, dusting off a largely forgotten gem, “His Love Lights the Way.” Even though Gerald Wolfe recorded the song as a piano solo in the mid-90s, there have been few if any vocal renditions in decades. This facile rendition will delight fans of classic quartet singing.

“Celebrate Me Home” should be a career song for the Perrys, a song they sing as long as they are on the road. It has an intelligently crafted lyric, a well-suited Wayne Haun-produced orchestral setting, and a power delivery from alto Libbi Perry Stuffle reminiscent of earlier performances like “Holy Shore” and “Walk Away Free.” The lyric, penned by Wayne Haun and Joel Lindsey, starts with a familiar metaphor:

When the time comes and I’m standing at the river

…but from that familiar starting place, it accomplishes a feat rare in a genre with hundreds if not thousands of Heaven songs: It paints a vivid picture, offering a fresh, unique, and well-crafted first-person account of a Christian passing into eternity:

That separates the two worlds that I love
Torn between my precious friends and family
And the place of peace that’s waiting up above

Hold my hand and stay there by my side
And when I finally step into the tide

Then, in a clever play on words, the chorus uses “celebrate” in multiple meanings, multiple time frames.

(Chorus)
Celebrate me home, celebrate me there

This first line refers to the time during which the narrator moves from this side of eternity to the other. By the next line, the scene has shifted:

Celebrate me in that land of wonder
Where nothing can compare
Celebrate me in that place
Celebrate me saved by grace
Don’t just sit and weep because I’m gone
Celebrate me home

So while “celebrate me home” is an action taken as the narrator moves from one end of eternity to another, by the end of the chorus, it is in the sense of “celebrate that I’m home.” It’s one of those little lyric twists that is not consciously evident on a casual listen through the song (more on that casual thing in a minute), but subtly reinforces and strengthens the impact of the concept.

Libbi Perry Stuffle is perhaps best known for tender, soft ballads like “The Potter Knows the Clay,” “Mary for a While,” and “I Will Find You Again”; on Blue Skies, she adds another to that repertoire, the Kyla Rowland-penned “I Know What I’m Singing About.” But among her big ballad / anthem performances, this is easily her strongest vocal performance yet. Picking up the “casual listen” train of thought, if by some chance the rendition has not completely caught your attention during the verses, the bridge is certain to:

No more broken dreams
No more tear-stained eyes
Into my Father’s arms I’ll fly…

The melody soars, the orchestration builds, and then on the climactic final word, “fly,” she hits a powerful high G, holding it for two full measures. And just when you think that is the climax, she moves up a half-step to A-flat, as the orchestration and harmony parts modulate up a key, and holds that for another full measure. Then, of course, the triumphal final chorus brings this power anthem to its finish.

The lyric came all too close to taking on added poignancy with bass singer Tracy Stuffle’s heart attack between when vocals were completed and the CD release date. Let us hope that this will not hold the Perrys back from staging and singling one of the strongest songs they have recorded in their career.

Believe it or not, until this year, the Perrys were among a very small number of major Southern Gospel groups who had never cut a song by Dianne Wilkinson. “Nothing Was Burned,” a Tracy Stuffle feature, changes that; it’s a fun, uptempo collaboration between Wilkinson and Kyla Rowland retelling the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Speaking of Kyla Rowland, the Perrys cut several of her songs on each project, and Blue Skies is no exception. In fact, she sends the Perrys so many good songs that they have a history of cutting at least one more Rowland song of radio single quality than they could possibly send to radio in a year’s time. Standing shoulder to shoulder with past Rowland songs like “Until I Start Looking Ahead,” “Look No Further,” and “Prior to a Prayer” is the song “Rejoice, Children, Rejoice.” It’s an anthem of hope that’s mostly ballad with a call-and-answer touch of convention song.

The album wraps up with five more tracks, the aforementioned “I Know What I’m Singing About,” two uptempo songs (“Sounds Good to Me” and “Every Time I Need Him”), and baritone Troy Peach’s two features, “He Loves to Save” and “The End of the Aisle.” Peach, who has spent most of his career prior to joining the Perrys as a lead/tenor in more progressive mixed trios and family groups, was still adjusting to the position of baritone in a traditional mixed quartet with Almost Morning. He has now found his sweet spot in this ensemble, and both features play well to his strengths.

Between their typically strong song selection and a vocal lineup that has been together long enough to hit their stride, the Perrys have produced a recording which stands aside This is The Day and Look No Further as one of the three strongest recordings of their career. It’s easily one of the five best Southern Gospel projects of the year, and earns a solid five-star rating.

Produced by: Wayne Haun. • Group Members: Libbi Perry Stuffle, Joseph Habedank, Troy Peach, Tracy Stuffle, Bryan Elliott. • Review copy provided. • Song list: Blue Skies Coming; Grace Doesn’t Remember; His Love Lights the Way; Celebrate Me Home; Nothing Was Burned; Rejoice, Children, Rejoice; Sounds Good to Me; He Loves to Save; Every Time I Need Him; I Know What I’m Singing About; The End of the Aisle. • Average song rating: 4.45 stars. CD rating: 5 stars.