Keith Porteous, “Sound Refuge” (Independent)

The woman on the cover of this deeply spiritual set is neither a saint or Keith’s muse; Porteous is indeed female, not just in gender identity but in vocal chops, blessed with an instrument that combines Natalie Merchant’s bluesy inflections with Sarah McLachlan’s beatific calm. The repository of several different Lilith Fair singer-songwriter moves, Porteous’ debut is a mix of religious chestnuts from many areas, and the fact that she’s tackling a litany (no pun intended) of white and black spiritual standards with her coffeehouse sensibility results in a unique and fresh take on “church music.”

That’s meant literally. These reflections were recorded mostly at the Episcopalian Christ Church Cathedral, right there in Uptown. (You can even see videos of the process on YouTube.) Recording spare with reverent piano, harmonium, and some percussion doesn’t just breathe new life into these old chestnuts, it makes them easier to be felt for those of us whose idea of religion is more pastoral than dogmatic. Not so much fire and brimstone as a warm glow, this is music as balm, no doubt touching many cultural areas so as to create something easily translatable across all cultures. Her faith proves not only redemptive but utilitarian: St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer, for example, pops up not once but twice, balanced out nicely as it is by two re-workings of ancient Buddhist texts, “Amazing Grace,” and covers of everything from Sara Bareilles to Hillsong United. In fact, Keith’s greatest achievement may not be retooling American gospel into something more ancient and European, or even creating a spiritual safe space for all who feel; it may lie in the revelation of just how similar we are in our ability to transcend the emotionally mundane. It’s a lesson we’re not learning fast enough.