Christmas Wrap-Up 2004
- Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2004 1 Jan
Carolyn Arends | Denver & The Mile High Orchestra
Peder Eide | Kim Hill | George Huff | The Katinas
Russ Lee | Erin O'Donnell | Andrew Peterson
Trans-Siberian Orchestra | Absolute Favorite Christmas | Gloria
Christmas: An Irrational Season (2B Records)
Acoustic pop and folk
Since the mid-1990s, Carolyn Arends' pastor has asked her to write a new Christmas song for their church every year, and her annual Christmas concerts have become increasingly popular with audiences. So it was only inevitable that the singer/songwriter released a full-length album, which takes its name from a Madeline L'Engle poem. Seasonal gems include "The Lord's Servant," offering depth while looking at the role of faith during the first Christmas night and present day. Similarly, "Do Not Be Afraid" (from 2001's Travelers) beautifully depicts the Annunciation from Mary's perspective. Still, the songs don't offer much insight into the "irrational season" notion—that the Christmas story flies in the face of reason. Nor does the style vary enough, and the few carol covers aren't unique. But Arends' warm and pleasant acoustic pop sound is a good match for Christmas—especially for fans of Amy Grant's holiday albums. Not quite a classic, but this is still a good Christmas release. Visit www.carolynarends.com to listen and buy.
Timeless Christmas (Reel Loud Records)
Big band jazz and pop
Seems only appropriate that Christian big band leader Denver Bierman & his 12-man Mile High Orchestra would record a Christmas album. It is, after all, the most wonderful time of the year, when people seem more willing to embrace classic jazz for the sake of nostalgia and tradition. Don't expect either of Harry Connick Jr.'s amazing Christmas albums, and you're likely to be impressed. The talented band mixes up their sound with contemporary pop and funk arrangements, and they've either done a better job of integrating it with their base jazz sound, or else the varied context of a Christmas album is more forgiving of their extreme eclecticism. Interspersed with familiar favorites are originals like romantic "This Christmas, All I Need Is You," a playful "Frosty the Bluesman," the Dixieland stomp of "Jesus Child," and a cool funk/rock cover called "King of Glory, King of Love." The album is only marred by a slightly messed up track listing (quality control, anyone?) and fairly second-rate production values. Still, much of Timeless Christmas is done in the right spirit—musically and thematically.
Christmas: Come On In (Eide Music)
Adult contemporary pop
Minnesotan Peder Eide has enjoyed success as an independent worship artist, but buzz for his Christmas album has been strong enough to get Christian bookstore distribution. Though maybe a little over-hyped for such a simple and predictable pop album, Come On In is still likeable—a polished voice singing to AC pop that resembles Scott Krippayne and the instrumental-based Glad, though he also recalls Ian Eskelin on his cover of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." There are straightforward arrangements of the usual carols, as well as "In the Bleak Midwinter" and David Meece's "One Small Child." These are joined by three originals co-written by Eide, including "Let Us Remember" and "Love Has Come," both about God's love manifested by the gift of his Son. "Come On In" captures the invitational spirit of Christmas as a time of welcoming Jesus and others into our homes. The only real surprise here is that a relative unknown has released a Christmas album on par with most signed Christian artists. Available in stores or at www.pedereide.com.
Real Christmas (Spirit-Led)
Kim Hill has been featured on many Christmas albums, but she's never recorded her own until now. The results are exactly what you would expect—earthy acoustic pop that occasionally leans toward folk and country. Hill changes up the melodic rhythm on "Angels We Have Heard on High," adding some country soul to the "Glorias." Her version of "O Come All Ye Faithful" adds a new worship chorus, "O Holy Night" gets a classic pop shuffle feel that's different without being dramatically so, and "I Wonder as I Wander" is performed as simple folk/country with a new melody. The highlight is her duet with Phil Keaggy on a new stripped-down version of their cool "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" arrangement from Our Christmas (Reunion) in the early '90s—the two blend together amazingly well. Add two originals—"Gift of Love" and the worshipful "He Is Our King"—and you've got a disc that, while not essential to your collection, has a clear affinity for traditional carols and pleasantly organic arrangements, all topped off with Hill's deep and warm alto voice.
My Christmas EP! (Word/Warner)
Gospel/R&B influenced pop
American Idol fans won't soon forget this wildcard contestant from the 2004 season with his big smile, lovable attitude, goofy dippin' during his performances, and of course, that silky velvety voice. George Huff, who signed with Word, a major Christian label, grew up in the church singing gospel music. His full-length debut won't release until spring, so this five-track Christmas EP is here to bridge the gap. Unfortunately, producers Cedric and Victor Caldwell (BeBe & CeCe Winans) don't allow Huff opportunity to display any musical diversity. The predictable gospel/R&B flavored pop arrangements of familiar carols sound just as generic as those on American Idol, never varying the programmed instrumentation. Things only become upbeat with the closing gospel cover of "Go Tell It on the Mountain," replete with cheesy production values and manufactured audience applause. The only reason to get this is for Huff's impressive voice, which does in fact recall a younger BeBe Winans, especially during "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Here's hoping Huff can offer something a little more substantial later on.
Family Christmas (Gotee)
Last year, The Katinas released a four-track Christmas EP that was strong enough to warrant more for a full-length holiday album. Sure enough, here's Family Christmas, which begins with the same four songs—the oh-so-jazzy harmonized rendition of "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!," a reflective pop arrangement of "Mary Did You Know?," a soulful R&B version of "Joy to the World," and a gorgeous a cappella performance of "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Unfortunately, the six tracks that follow don't stand out as well, including a so-so R&B cover of "O Come All Ye Faithful" and the funky original "Christmas Is Here." Although none of them are badly done, they're comparably mediocre, recorded with seemingly lower production values and creative arrangements. A simple and stirring harmonized cover of "O Holy Night" and a cool rock version of Michael W. Smith's "Emmanuel" at least redeem the newer tracks. This is only a satisfactory Christmas release that could have been so much better.
Hear Those Bells (Vertical Vibe)
Soulful adult contemporary pop
As a former lead singer for Truth and NewSong with two solo projects under his belt, it's no secret that Russ Lee has an impressively soulful pop vocal. And he puts it on fine display for the array of covers on this holiday release. He croons the jazzy "Angel in the Snow" very well, as well as the exquisite piano-accompanied "Silent Night." With "O Holy Night" and "Joy to the World," he delivers the gospel tour de force you'd hope for, and his bluesy take on "Go Tell It on the Mountain" is outstanding. There's even a somewhat exotic and percussive rendition of "Do You Hear What I Hear" reminiscent of Sting. So it's too bad that some of the songs are the same dreadfully routine Christian pop we've heard for so long—particularly originals like "Baby Boy" and the title track. The cover of "O Come All Ye Faithful" is as predictable as anything by NewSong, 4Him, and Phillips Craig & Dean. There are some great musical gifts here, but also a few you'll wish you could return.
Christmas Time Is Here (Inpop)
The first Christmas album from Erin O'Donnell offers a little of everything. Produced by Ed Cash (Bebo Norman, Chris Tomlin), the nice variety ranges from sacred to secular with an interesting mix of jazz and acoustic pop. It begins with a terrific rhythmic jazz/pop cover of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," while "Angels We Have Heard on High" has an absolutely infectious, joyful acoustic Latin feel. "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" marries rhumba-like percussion to a sparse Appalachian sound. Amid the jazzy standards are two originals—the charming "Christmas Kiss" written by Erin's husband Brad, and "Waiting for Love to Be Born," which offers beautiful sentiment while giving O'Donnell room to flex her vocal muscle. The arrangements are inventive and strong, but the performances seal the deal. What a band, highlighted by outstanding keyboards from Ben Shive, inspired drumming by Jim Brock, and an unforgettable upright bass from Byron House. And O'Donnell's vocals sound better than ever, perhaps because she was trained as a jazz vocalist. Her regular pop albums need to display more of this sophisticated blend of pop and jazz savvy—she excels at it.
Behold the Lamb of God (Fervent)
Andrew Peterson—with a little help from his musician friends—has performed this mostly original pseudo-musical (really an "oratorio") in Nashville for five years. At last, the rest of us get to hear what the buzz is about. Think of it as an abbreviated Handel's Messiah as performed by Rich Mullins and friends, telling the Christmas story over the course of biblical history. The catchy production goes beyond shepherds and stables, tying God's promise back to Passover, Israel's desire for a king, and the words of the prophets. Peterson has a gift for adapting Scripture into songs that are theologically profound, yet easy to digest, with clever titles like "Passover Us," "Labor of Love" (as in birth), and "Matthew's Begats," a fun bluegrass ditty that really is what you think it is. Featuring guest vocals from Jill Phillips, Derek Webb, and Fernando Ortega, the CD is produced by Peterson with keyboardist/arranger Ben Shive and guitarist Andrew Osenga (Caedmon's Call). It only clocks in at 44 minutes, and it could stand some more variation beyond folk-pop. But it's masterfully done, particularly the songwriting and musicianship. Props to Peterson for telling the Christmas story in a way you've probably never considered before.
The Lost Christmas Eve (Lava)
Trans-Siberian Orchestra has steadily grown in popularity with every passing year, fueled by their unique Christmas albums and thrilling holiday concerts that offer an amazing mix of classical (Mozart, Liszt, Pachelbel), progressive rock, Broadway musicals, and grandiose pop. The Lost Christmas Eve represents TSO's third rock opera in their Christmas trilogy, and though it's arguably the weakest, it's still breathtaking and skillfully made. Al Pitrelli's larger-than-life guitar solos are among the best you'll hear today, the singers have character aplenty in their voices, and the arrangements are strong, even if they do rely more on originals this time than transformed Christmas hymns. Get "carolized" by the rocking "Christmas Jam" and a heavier version of TSO's "Christmas Canon," along with a dramatic interpretation of "What Child Is This?" And be sure to read the underlying story, a powerful tale of an angel searching for the name of the person who best continued the work of God's Son on Earth, leading to a man who has lost his faith during the holiday season, only to recover it in the pursuit of his abandoned son and a moving example of selfless love. Creative, bombastic, reverent, nuanced, poignant, fun—all this and more.
Absolute Favorite Christmas (Fervent)
Fervent's Absolute series launched in 2004 as a WoW series for second tier Christian artists. Absolute Worship called attention to the best lesser-known worship songs while Absolute Smash Hits tried to commemorate mediocrity and dated material. This new two-disc set features some old originals by Smalltown Poets, Jennifer Knapp, and Big Tent Revival from older albums. But for the most part, the collection focuses on new material—including tracks from the aforementioned CDs by Kim Hill, Erin O'Donnell, and Andrew Peterson. There are also new covers by BarlowGirl ("O Holy Night"), Jill Phillips ("The First Noel"), Tree63 ("What Child Is This?"), and Kate Miner ("Silent Night"). Also check out originals by Big Daddy Weave ("Christ Is Come"), By the Tree ("Christmas in My Heart"), and Todd Agnew ("Bethlehem Dawn"). It's not that everyone will like all 25 tracks, but what a pleasant surprise to find a double album of Christmas music that doesn't rely on the usual covers and previously released material. There are a lot of goodies to make this sampler worth your while.
Adult contemporary pop
Rocketown's Gloria is a community inspired, City on a Hill-styled collaboration, featuring some of the most well known names in Christian music. Produced by Charlie Peacock and Scott Denté (Out of the Grey), most of the songs are originals that alternate between themes of Advent and Christmas—anticipation and celebration. "Love Came Just in Time" is the most interesting track, using Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25-38) to convey waiting for the Lord; it's got a marvelous alt folk sound performed by Taylor Sorensen, Alathea, and Steve Mason (Jars of Clay). The search for purpose is likened to the wise men's journey in Cindy Morgan's captivating ballad "Follow That Star." Christine Denté teams with Michael W. Smith's harmony and piano accompaniment for "Prepare a Place," which captures a beautiful, meditative Advent tone. The album never falters, yet Gloria doesn't quite live up to its potential considering all the major talent involved—Exodus or City on a Hill this is not. Still, it's an album of well-written pop songs that will get you thinking about the season, contemplating the miracle and meaning of the Word made flesh.