Is it a coincidence that Paul Harkey is wearing a short tie on Glorious Day‘s album cover?

Ernie Haase thinks visually; small details don’t escape him. It’s probably no coincidence that Harkey’s debut album cover with the group has a distinct visual connection to the era that took the group to the top of the genre some eight years ago.

While recently departed bass singer Ian Owens’ voice was a cultured and perhaps even high-church departure for the group, Harkey brings back the excitement and flair of the Tim Duncan era. In fact, a fan of the group eight years ago who hearing the group on the radio today, might not even notice that there had been a bass singer change. Given how beloved Duncan was, and that his eight years with the group included the group’s most popular era to date, this is hardly a bad thing.

Harkey has two stellar solos, “Scars in the Hands of Jesus” and “Two Coats.” Both have been historically identified as songs for higher timbres of voices; “Scars in the Hands of Jesus” was a Florida Boys’ tenor feature staple for years, while “Two Coats” is a classic Ralph Stanley bluegrass tune. Harkey’s fresh interpretation of each song makes the songs fully worth this revisiting.

No factor is more determinative of an album’s quality than the strength of its songs. This is the strongest collection of new songs Signature Sound has put together since their 2006 release Get Away Jordan. Besides the two Harkey features already mentioned, other standout tracks include the uptempo quartet song “Water-Walking God” and the mid-tempo-with-a-touch-of-soul Ernie Haase feature “When I Was a Sinner.” There’s also a live acoustic version of “Sometimes I Wonder,” a Doug Anderson feature that was easily the standout track on Signature Sound’s previous mainline, Here We Are Again.

Ernie Haase is definitely not one to think inside the box. In the decade he has been running Ernie Haase and Signature Sound, he has never gone more than a year or two without trying something dramatically unique. Sometimes his innovations bring the genre forward. Other times (e.g. “Happy Birthday, Anniversary Too” and perhaps “Everytime”), he’s so far outside the box that the Southern Gospel box will never catch up!

Ten years from now, looking back at this project, will we see a couple of things that, in retrospect, look cheesy? Perhaps. But we’re also fairly certain to see a number of things and think that the group was a decade ahead of their time. That’s the risk innovators take.

One aspect particularly stands out: Ten to fifteen years ago, digital studio technology reached a point where vocal and instrumental performances could be enhanced to a level of perfection beyond the best humanly possible performance. Digitally induced perfection quickly caught on in this genre and others. Several of the songs on Glorious Day suggest that Ernie Haase and producer Wayne Haun seem to think that this trend has peaked and run its course. Songs like “Shh, Be Still” and “When I Was a Sinner” aren’t phrased as tightly as similar songs on previous albums. (Put another way, there are slight differences between when group members singing harmony parts start or end a musical phrase.) Could it be that Southern Gospel fans have reached a point where they are ready to prefer performances that are a little less polished and more human? Haase and Haun seem to think so, and I suspect they might be right.

Glorious Day might not be the single strongest recording Ernie Haase & Signature Sound has ever recorded. (“Noah Found Grace in the Eyes of the Lord” stays close enough to previous versions that it would have been more at home on a table project.) But it is the strongest project of new songs they have recorded in six or seven years. If you loved Signature Sound in the Seaton/Anderson/Duncan era, but haven’t been following as closely since, the time has definitely come to give them another chance.

Traditional or Progressive: All of the above, plus bluegrass, brass band, and just about anything else you can think of.

Group Members: Ernie Haase (tenor), Devin McGlamery (lead), Doug Anderson (baritone), Paul Harkey (bass).

Credits: Producer: Wayne Haun. Recorded by: Kevin Ward and Michael Stankiewicz. Mixed by Kevin Ward. Mastered by Alan Silverman. Musicians: Not credited.

Song List (songwriters in parentheses): When the Saints Go Marching In; When Jesus Breaks the Morning (William J. Gaither); That’s Why (Ernie Haase, Wayne Haun, Joel Lindsey); Scars in the Hands of Jesus (Marijohn Wilkin); Shh, Be Still (Ernie Haase, Wayne Haun, Joel Lindsey); Water Walking God (Ernie Haase, Wayne Haun, Joel Lindsey); Noah Found Grace in the Eyes of the Lord (Robert Schmertz); Two Coats; While I Was a Sinner (Jeff Bumgardner, Wayne Haun); Glorious Day; Sometimes I Wonder (live acoustic version) (Ernie Haase, Wayne Haun, Joel Lindsey).

Album rating: 4.5 stars. Average song rating: 3.8 stars.