It's A Wonderful Christmas
Michael W. Smith &
Reviewed by Michael Ehret
Christmas Songs by
Jars of Clay
"This year, two of the most respected artists in contemporary Christian music release Christmas albums that perfectly capture the differences between them."
This year, two of the most respected artists in contemporary Christian music release Christmas albums that perfectly capture the differences between them.
Jars of Clay’s Christmas Songs, their first disc with their own imprint Gray Matters, is as inventive as anything this growing, evolving band has ever recorded. This is their second Christmas project, following an EP, Drummer Boy (1995), and it follows their masterpiece recording, Good Monsters, from 2006. Like that disc, it was created in the studio in one-take recording sessions.
On the other hand, Smith’s It’s A Wonderful Christmas, his third such offering, is exactly what you’d expect from him if you’ve heard either of his previous efforts. Lush orchestrations (with a few vocals added) of mostly original songs.
Both discs are pleasant listens, but Jars’ is an essential holiday record because of the strong originals as well as their imaginative takes on some seasonal standards. Smith’s disc is good background music for the season, for sitting with a loved one in front of a fire, sipping hot chocolate.
As with their careers, Jars is still interested in trailblazing – in not only delivering high quality music, but doing so in a way that’s exciting, invigorating, and engaging. Smith, on the other hand, seems content, as with his last studio disc, Stand (2006), to settle in and simply keep doing what he’s always done – and doing it exceptionally well.
In Christmas Songs, Jars of Clay has done the seemingly impossible: Made a nice stocking stuffer out of Paul McCartney’s anemic “Wonderful Christmastime.” By slowing it down just a bit and filling in the sonic spaces left empty in McCartney’s heavily synthed version, the guys in Jars have made the song a warm welcome on their disc: “The moon is right. The spirit’s up. We’re here tonight and that’s enough. Simply having a wonderful Christmastime.” It very much feels like a “C’mon in. Have a cup of cider.”
In Jars’ version of “O, Little Town of Bethlehem,” be prepared for a totally new melody and an edgy feel that subtly reminds us that Jesus Christ’s birth that night was about as subversive as one can imagine. The song, through the driving bass line, insinuates itself into your brain, nearly supplanting the more familiar version.
Among the strong originals is “Hibernation Day,” a lazy, almost Harry Connick-y song about choosing to stay inside and snuggle instead of braving the cold and snow. Out of the Grey’s Christine Dente offers nice, sweet, vocal counterpoints. Following right after that is the song “Winter Skin,” about putting on your “winter skin and watching the snow fall.” Dan Haseltine’s slightly tightened vocals, along with the sparse orchestration, sonically capture the feeling of walking into a cold winter wind.
The band also performs a strong version of the old Peanuts Christmas special song, “Christmastime is Here,” a new version of “Drummer Boy,” and an almost exact copy of Sting’s “Gabriel’s Message” – as well as other new and old treasures.
Smith’s It’s A Wonderful Christmas was recorded at Abbey Road Studios with a 65-piece orchestra and four choirs. The only song that is familiar is a soft piano instrumental version of “What Child Is This.” All of the other 10 songs are Smith originals – sixth of them with vocals.
I know there are people who love these grand orchestral statements at Christmas (I’m married to one of them), but I am not one of them. Still, there is no mistaking the quality of this music and the performances.
At times this feels like a Christmas cantata, there’s that much choir support and instrumental backing.
Smith did include one song to please us pop music lovers – and it is a duet with American Idol finalist, Mandisa. “Christmas Day” is a lovely new holiday standard about the comfort of Christmas traditions and “lighting a candle” as we “pray for peace.” It’s nice.
If you can only pick one, my recommendation is the Jars of Clay offering. This one will be spinning for me throughout the season – and even beyond.
Michael Ehret is a music maven who has written about music, secular and Christian, as a reporter for The Indianapolis Star newspaper, several Internet sites, and even CCM magazine. He is also the editor of the newsletter Afictionado, the e-zine of the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), and is testing the waters with his first novel, Beyond December, while working on his second, Skipping July.