Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Phantom Tollbooth’s Rock Doc goes Certified Gold for Christmas

Certified Gold, Incense & Myrrh
Artist: Dr. B.L.T. featuring Tommy Isbell and Other Artists (http://www.drblt.net/)
Label: Frosty Rock Records (Independent)
Length: 24 tracks/76:15

Leave it to The Phantom Tollbooth’s Rock Doc to come up with one of the most original Christmas recording of the season. How do I describe it in just a few words? It’s raw, heartfelt, inventive, thoughtful, fun, reverent and all over the map musically.

If you are tired of homogenized Christmas songs that all start to sound the same, you might find this singer/songwriter collection to be just what the doctor ordered. Folk, alternative, pop, country, rock, rap and exotic programmed rhythms are all employed to honor "the baby king" and celebrate the trappings of the season. Amazingly, there are only a few covers on this generous offering of 24 songs.

Most of the tracks tend towards minimalist production and simple arrangements that marry guitar strumming with country, rock and folk influences. When they come together, as on "Brand New Christmas Song," it helps spread that Christmas cheer that this Rock Doc would no doubt prescribe.

In "Certified Gold, Incense and Myrrh," the opening song, Dr. B.L.T. sets the stage for the remainder of the CD by offering his music as a gift to the Christ child. He shows himself to be a clever songwriter with the play on words in "Between Iraq and a Heart Place," a song that wishes US troops in Iraq a Merry Christmas. It’s a touching song, one that they would appreciate, knowing that they are not forgotten. "Christmas 4 Two" is a quiet, love song that eloquently expresses a desire to celebrate the season with one’s spouse.

The laugh out loud song of the CD is "You’re Not the Kinda Ho that Santa Had in Mind (Original County Rock Version)." The doctor tells a story that deals with a serious subject in a funny way. There is also a (New Rap Edition) of the song. Both versions are done equally well.
"Dear Johnny (Won’t You Help Me with My Christmas CD) is an affectionate ode to Johnny Cash that has a little of his trademark sound.

The wide variety of songs demonstrates how versatile Dr. B.L.T. is musically. The whimsical nature of the music and lyrics, the number of songs and their interesting titles, are all somewhat reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens. The stripped-down sound of many of the tracks fits well with the unpretentious vocals. He’s at his best when he ruggedly combines folk, rock and country influences. If you are not afraid to try something a little offbeat, you might enjoy this homespun blend of wit, wisdom and worship.

You can stay tuned to the Rock Doc and his songs by checking out his writings each month at The Phantom Tollbooth. He often helps to answer readers’ questions with a song and also shares his gift of music in his "Single Servings" column.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Christmas brings out the best in Michael W. Smith

It’s a Wonderful Christmas
Artist: Michael W. Smith
Label: Reunion Records (www.reunionrecords.com)
Length: 11 tracks/39:52 minutes

Christmas brings out the best in some artists. It’s true of Jeff Johnson, and after listening to It’s a Wonderful Christmas, I believe it’s true of Michael W. Smith.

This is Smith’s third Christmas offering and it’s filled with wonder from the opening notes that mimic the sound of a child’s music box. The intricate and vibrant orchestration could be the perfect soundtrack for some enchanted Christmas performance. Images and memories spring to mind as the music brings to life the glory of the season.

It alternates between quiet, beautiful sounds and the fuller, majestic sounds that you would associate with a symphony. Known for his pop rock and more recently his praise and worship music, this is the symphony side of Michael W. Smith that we heard on Freedom (2000). But this release outshines his previous foray into the wonderful world of orchestration.

It may have helped that this was recorded at London’s famous Abbey Road studios using four different choirs and a 67-piece orchestra. But more than anything, if God shines in all that is fair, Michael W. Smith shines here as a composer, musician and vocalist. All but one song—a quiet and gorgeous instrumental of "What Child Is This"—are original compositions by Smith. These compositions overflow with creative vitality, and Smith sings in a strong but tender voice. It must be the magic of the season.

It’s no wonder that Smith is extremely satisfied with the outcome. The depth in the music and lyrics give it a timeless quality. That’s not to say that you won’t find songs with a pop sensibility.

The opening "Christmas Angels" sets the stage by combining all the varied elements heard throughout the CD: choirs, orchestra, Smith’s piano playing, pop energy, quiet and crescendos. It’s all here in one song.

"Christmas Day" is a beautiful duet with American Idol’s Mandisa. The lyrics, written by Wes King and Cindy Morgan, evoke a multitude of images associated with Christmas. It ends with the thought: "Let’s light a candle / For peace we pray / Oh merry Christmas / It’s Christmas Day."

Another comforting lyric is found on the final track, "All Year Long," on which Bonnie Keen, formerly of First Call, provides a heavenly-sounding harmony vocal. The song is like a benediction that concludes with these words: "If trouble finds you, this is my prayer / May peace guard your heart and make you strong / And I wish you love, the kind to last / All year long."

The excellence of It’s a Wonderful Christmas lays to rest any question of whether Smith needed to do a third Christmas recording. This may be the best of the three, and it’s one of the best Christmas offerings of the year. It showcases a different side of Smith, one that highlights his ability as a composer. It’s also highly original; you won’t find too many Christmas releases like this.

This may be the mother of all Christian music collections

Songs 4 Ever
Artist: Various
Label: Time Life (www.timelife.com)
Length: 10 CDs with 150 songs

I want to say “Wow,” but that’s a different series of collected faith-inspired music. Produced by Time Warner, and part of the Songs 4 series, this may be the mother of all Christian music collections.

Just the size alone makes it noteworthy: 10 CDs with 150 songs spanning three decades of Christian music in a box that opens from the top with a back hinge. Even the box makes me want to say, “Wow!” It’s the right word, but the wrong series. Think Songs 4 and to elaborate on the word Ever, we have a classic collection of timeless Christian music.

This comprehensive grouping ranges from the work of early Christian music pioneers like Larry Norman, Keith Green, Phil Keaggy and the 2nd Chapter of Acts to those like Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Rich Mullins, and Steven Curtis Chapman, who are widely recognized today. It also brings us to the present with songs by Mercy Me, Casting Crowns, Chris Tomlin and Third Day.

What makes this unique is the combination of Praise & Worship with some of the biggest and most popular songs in the history of contemporary Christian music. “Butterfly Kisses” by Bob Carlisle takes its place right next to “Shout to the Lord” by Darlene Zschech. Steven Curtis Chapman’s “The Great Adventure” is side by side with Michael W. Smith’s “Draw Me Close.” Audio Adrenaline’s celebratory “Big House” gets equal time with Brian Doerksen’s “Come, Now is the Time to Worship.” With only a few exceptions, you get the original version of a hit song.

Delirious? is known for many wonderful recordings but one of their best remains “Shout to the North.” The simplicity combined with the more acoustic sound of this early recording make it a delight. With so many covers of Praise & Worship songs, it’s a joy to go back to the first take.

Despite the criticism of what is known as CCM, this huge collection shows just how good it can be. One could argue with some of the choices, but with any collection like this there are some weaker selections. Overall, it’s a strong collection and will make an excellent gift for any fan of Praise & Worship songs or contemporary Christian music.

Kudos to Time Life for giving us a collection that right down to the box will be hard to top. How about another set that unearths and focuses on the classic work of pioneer Christian artists?

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