Anyone who has read my blog for any period of time might know that I have a great deal of respect for the creative endeavors of singer/poet/author Kevin Max (former member of dc Talk, current lead singer of Audio Adrenaline). You might also know that I am a Christmas music enthusiast. While Max has a standard-bearing Christmas album that’s been out there for a few years already (see my review at Holiday Soundtrack Part 2: HOLY NIGHT – Kevin Max), this clip just showed up this evening and its rich. It’s my pleasure to post it for you.
Any friends or family of mine know that I am a what might be called a Christmas music enthusiast. My library of Christmas music grows by leaps and bounds each year and it’s already large enough to take several days to get through without listening to the same track twice. In this post I’d like to feature a couple of albums that have risen to the top in my Christmas rotation so far this season. I think both are worthy of your consideration if you’re looking for a couple of decent albums to provide the score to your holiday season.
Bob Dylan’s CHRISTMAS IN THE HEART, in the past couple of years, has become a staple Christmas album for me. Those not familiar with him usually, at least, raise an eyebrow at the first sound of voice as it drops on top of the lush, warm background arrangement. But, it doesn’t take long to find the groove and begin enjoying the album which comes across as a nostalgic remembrance of classic Christmas music of years ago. From “Here Comes Santa Claus,” to “Silver Bells,” and “O’ Little Town of Bethlehem,” the album is, indeed, a heartwarming collection.
Jim Cole’s UNTO US A CHILD IS BORN is brand new in my collection this season and, while it is a different direction than Dylan’s Christmas album, it also treats the holiday season and the notion of a Christmas album with an intentional respect that comes through clearly in each song. While Dylan’s album focused on popular Christmas songs, both sacred and secular, Cole’s album focuses on the sacred center of Christmas with traditional favorites such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” and “What Child Is This?,” in addition to other tracks such as “In Bethlehem Tonight,” that, while lesser known, are just as carefully crafted and performed. The folk music tone of the album is reflective and quiet and Cole’s masterful guitar work provides a common thread throughout the duration of UNTO US A CHILD IS BORN. It isn’t as widely circulated as Dylan’s Christmas offering, but, certainly, just as worthy of your ear during the holiday season.
Holy Night is a delicious change of pace when compared with the bulk of what is released in the category of holiday music. There is tremendous consistency in style, quality, and vision from the first track to the last. The general spirit of the album is one of respect for the original historical contexts in which many of these classic Christmas songs were written and an apparent desire by Kevin Max to present Christmas music as art as opposed to pre-formatted, Christmas pop. He seems to have intentionally shunned the crowded commercial sound often employed by artists when they decide to record a Christmas album. Many of the tracks adopt a darker and more mysterious mood. For example “Joy To The World” seems closer to David Bowie than it does Mahalia Jackson. Yet reverence for the focus of the lyric is maintained and the quality and craftsmanship of the music is remarkable.
While a consistent thread of lonesome reverence is injected into each of the songs on Holy Night, a few of the tracks are hung on an up-tempo frame that, while continuing to maintain a level of intimate, personal sincerity, also breathe a sense of spirited optimism rooted in the birth of Jesus Christ. While songs like “What Child Is This” employ lush strings and the taste of a full orchestra for the musical backdrop, the basic, quick-tempo of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is much simpler, yet, equally infectious and undeniably mood-lightening. Both songs have a character that grabs the heart of the listener and makes it feel just a little bit more than it did before.
A personal favorite from this album include “O Little Town of Bethlehem” which opens treading lightly with a particularly lonely sounding piano, but, soon unfolds into what I can only try to describe (and perhaps not accurately) as some kind of Soviet/middle eastern kind of rhythm. Max’s unique and lush vocals inject an often-heard and under appreciated song with a sense of renewal that draws the listener in.
The lowest point of the album in my humble opinion (if there is one on this album) is “Greensleeves” which seems to be thematically out of place. But, one blip isn’t enough to darken the bright light that is the quality of this album from front to back. The fantastic match between Max’s unique and piercingly powerful voice and the understated, yet masterfully present musical backdrop that blankets each track on this album is indeed magical if not, at least, worth a listen.
Holiday Soundtrack Part 1: Come On Christmas by Dwight Yoakam
(post originally appeared 12/8/08)