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.
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