Music Review: Sonos – December Songs

Hi all…

This has to be a first… I’ve found TWO Christmas albums this year I actually can stand! Is the Grinch melting or are people simply starting to go beyond traditional arrangements of boring old Christmas tunes?

Over the last ten years I’ve only found a handful of holiday-themed albums that have really clicked for me. Traditional albums filled with Christmas classics tend to stay to the tried-and-true arrangements of the same songs we’ve heard for years now. So when I find an artist that breaks the mold, either with humor, new arrangements, or new songs, I tend to take more notice.

Sonos, an a cappella group that came onto the scene in 2009, has released an album of Christmas music called December Songs and it’s striking in its gorgeous vocal arrangements and choice of songs. They’ve been busy, performing in live sessions on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Studio 360, KCRW, BBC Americana, Sirius/XM, and many others – as well as performing at the Sundance Music Festival. With all of that, it’s amazing they had a chance to get into the studio to record a holiday album. And all ten songs lend a grace and harmony to the season that adds a bit of magic back to Christmas for me.

“Ave Maria” starts off the album beautifully, adding motion to a song usually done much more slowly. Always a song rich with emotional overtones, Sonos has managed to add new life making it more of a bright and cheerful celebration than the usual dark and steady pace the song is normally performed set to.

They follow that up with “All on a Christmas Morning,” a song from the 1940s that I’d never heard before telling the story of the babe in the manger in Bethlehem. I love the opening which sounds a bit like a variation of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” but merges seamlessly with the lyrics “O, they a vision fair would view / Would find the beautiful and true, / And faith and hope and love renew / All on a Christmas morning.”

But funny enough to me it’s the traditional songs “O Holy Night” and “Greensleeves” that stuck with me after listening a few times. This is the first rendition of “O Holy Night” that I can remember not making me cringe. There’s a power to the arrangements as they transition from a duet with backups to the fuller chorus and the rich vocal accompaniment. And their version of “Greensleeves” without words provides some interesting textures to enhance the basic melodies that made this a unique arrangement.

Whether you’re a fan of a cappella music, Christmas music, or are simply looking for something to brighten your holidays, please check out December Music from Sonos. The album is available now from Amazon and CD Baby online. Be sure to check out their website at Sonosings.com.

For a review of Sonos last album – Sonosings – be sure to check out my review here.

This review appeared first at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Check out these albums from Barnes & Noble and Amazon!

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Music Review: Indigo Girls – Holly Happy Days

Hi again…

Those of you who know me know I’m not a fan of Christmas music. After one holiday season working retail in a mall with Christmas music piped in 24×7, you could say I now have a bit of an allergic reaction when I hear traditional arrangements of carols like “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night.” Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for fun or different approaches to these old, dated, repetitive songs.

Now, back in college, I became a huge fan of the Indigo Girls. Rites of Passage, Nomads Indians Saints, Swamp Ophelia, and 1200 Curfews still get played regularly at my house. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have been playing together since the mid-1980s, with their amazing harmonies, heartfelt lyrics, and arrangements that keep their music from falling into the same ruts other artists sometimes hit after playing together for 20+ years.

So when I heard the Indigos were releasing a bluegrass-tinged holiday album – Holly Happy Days – I knew I had to check it out. And I have to say I wasn’t disappointed.

With twelve tracks that includes a few covers, classics, and originals, the album should appeal not only to lovers of traditional holiday tunes, but also those looking for some new and different choices. A cover of Woody Guthrie‘s “Happy Joyous Hanukkah” (with background vocals from Janis Ian and Mary Gautier) sounds just as good as classics like “Oh Holy Night” and originals like “Mistletoe.” And the bluegrass feel adds an intangible quality to the already impressive vocal harmonies and arrangements of these classic songs.

What floors me is that a holiday album can seem original these days. I’ve heard so many arrangements of the usual suspects that I tend to just tune them all out. I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with traditional sounding carols and hymns being recorded time and again, but it’s just not for me…

But when I heard the slow, emotional pleas of “Mistletoe,” I knew this wasn’t your usual holiday album. With Ray’s expressive, deeper voice asking “please baby please / just let this love be” after a kiss under the mistletoe, I felt her calling for a chance to slow down and enjoy the season and let the fire burn low. And I loved the slow pick of the banjo and guitar, keeping the song rising and falling throughout.

With songs like “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which also features the voice of Brandi Carlile, the duo becomes a trio accompanied by the fiddle. I’d never heard this traditional holiday hymn, which is in the same vein as “Little Drummer Boy” asking what a visitor might give the newborn child – “What can I give him, poor as I am? / If I were a shepherd, I would bring my lamb / if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part / yet what I can I give him: give my heart.” It builds and builds the harmonies up to that last powerful verse, expressing that simplest of wishes for the season – it’s not about gifts and wrapping, lights and tinsel – it’s about caring for each other.

Add to that the simple arrangements of songs like “There’s Still My Joy” with Emily starting a capella with a soft piano. The lyrics and gorgeous harmonies of Amy and Emily express that “One tiny child can change the world / One shining light can show the way / through all my tears for what I’ve lost / there’s still my joy / there’s still my joy for Christmas Day.” How can you argue with that sentiment? Again, it boils down to the simplest idea of Christmas – not the overblown media and merchandising mayhem it has become.

I’m really not a Scrooge or a Grinch, but when I think of the winter holidays — the decorations, music, and shopping sometimes overwhelm me. Holly Happy Days makes me think that perhaps there are people in the world who know that the true meaning of the holidays is to give of yourself and pass along some hope. Thanks to Amy and Emily of the Indigo Girls, I think I just received my first gift of the season.

If you are looking for alternative Christmas and Hanukkah music choices for this season, definitely check out Holly Happy Days. It has a little in there for lovers of the traditional and the not-so-traditional holiday tunes. And I think it’ll be playing softly in the background as we share some family time come Christmas Day.

For more details about the Indigo Girls, their albums, and their touring schedule, be sure to check out their website at IndigoGirls.com.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this and other great Indigo Girls albums from Barnes & Noble below:

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Music Review: Enya – And Winter Came

Hi all…

Yes, it’s a bit after the holidays now, but this CD is one that can exist as a holiday album after the holidays.

Enya released And Winter Came in November 2008 after two years of work. And for a person who has an allergic reaction to the typical shopping mall style of holiday music, this was a breath of fresh air. I’ve loved Enya’s music since she released Watermark back in 1989. Her haunting Celtic flavored tunes have graced my CD collection for years.

So when And Winter Came I was only a little apprehensive about Enya’s spin on holiday music. Was I right in being apprehensive? Not a bit.

Though the album was initially planned as a collection of Christmas songs, it evolved as Enya, Nicky Ryan, and Roma Ryan worked on it in Enya’s studio. The album created as a result of this continued 20+ year collaboration of musicians provides a mix of some Christmas music, as well as winter or holiday-themed music that blends beautifully.

And Winter Came is comprised of twelve songs, including two traditional Christmas tunes (“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Silent Night” (“Oíche Chiúin” in Gaelige). Other songs include such upbeat and sing-a-long songs as “Trains and Winter Rains” and “White is in the Winter Night.”

Like all of Enya’s albums, this too has a landscape hidden beneath the layered tracks – from the calm and steady piano of “And Winter Came…” to the end of “My! My! Time Flies!” (listen for the electric guitar!) and the fading refrains of “Oíche Chiúin (Silent Night)”. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Of the many amazing tracks on the album, I have to say that “Oíche Chiúin” would have to be my favorite. This version of Silent Night involves what Nicky Ryan calls the “choir of one” – which was first used on Watermark where Enya performs multi-layered vocals to great effect. “Oíche Chiúin” uses this technique to amazing effect, enhancing the feel and meaning of the original work while making it more than it would have been if simply recorded with more usual techniques.

Though Enya doesn’t release albums often, they are always welcome when they appear like magic on music store shelves.

Track listing:

  1. And Winter Came…
  2. Journey of the Angels
  3. White is in the Winter Night
  4. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
  5. Trains and Winter Rains
  6. Dreams are More Precious
  7. Last Time by Moonlight
  8. One Toy Soldier
  9. The Spirit of Christmas Past
  10. My! My! Time Flies!
  11. Oíche Chiúin (Chorale) (Silent Night)

Be sure to check out your favorite local music store or Amazon to check this one out before the spirit of the season fades completely or keep it in mind for next years’ holiday celebrations.

–Fitz

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