Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas is Here - Brandon Heath

If Christmas songs seem stale, and you wonder if they can ever sound fresh, Brandon Heath and producer Ben Shive answer a resounding “yes!”

Christmas is Here
Artist: Brandon Heath (
Label: Provident Label Group
Length: 10 tracks/34 minutes

If I could purchase only one Christmas recording this year, it would be Christmas is Here by Brandon Heath. The cover of a smiling, scarf-draped Heath, Christmas album in hand, vinyl record spinning in the foreground, fireplace in the background, all hint of the rich nostalgia that you find here.

This has all that one might want in a seasonal recording: new compositions and classics, humor and inspiration, playfulness and wonder; and not least of all, a talented producer, Ben Shive (Andrew Peterson), who is a master of retro sounds. Shive was at the helm of last year’s standout, Snow Globe by Matt Wertz, on which Heath was a guest.

The opening “The Day after Thanksgiving,” could not be timelier. I need not inform anyone that Christmas started earlier than ever this year. This is a lighthearted plea to wait until after the day for giving thanks.

“The Christmas Song” brings out the crooner in Heath, while “Momma Wouldn’t Lie to Me” has him fronting a swinging fifties sound. One of the last lines is so funny that I won’t reveal it. What would Christmas be without some surprises?

The a cappella “Silent Night” with its background choir of female voices, sounds like a song from an old Hollywood classic, along the lines of White Christmas or The Bishop’s Wife.

The horns and choir on the closing medley “O Come All Ye Faithful/Angels We Have Heard on High” make it stately. I enjoyed the occasional, restrained use of these items and strings.

By far though, my favorite moments are the bluegrass-influenced tracks like, “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” which has never sounded better. The judicious use of Dobro highlights this aspect. The interplay of acoustic sounds in a rural style befits the more spiritually-minded tracks.

This includes “Just a Girl,” a beautiful, imaginative look at the circumstances surrounding Christ’s birth.

If Christmas songs seem stale, and you wonder if they can ever sound fresh, Heath and producer Ben Shive answer a resounding “yes!”

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Hope for All the World - Phillips, Craig & Dean

It all revolves around the miracle of a baby that would provide hope for the world.

Hope for All the World
Artist: Phillips, Craig & Dean (
Label: Fair Trade
Length: 10 tracks/37 minutes

Perhaps one overlooked highlight of Phillips, Craig & Dean’s career is “Shine on Us,” the closing track to a recording inspired by the devotional My Utmost for His Highest (also the name of the album) by Oswald Chambers. It epitomizes a central feature of the group: three strong male voices praising God in unison. The Utmost track is simple and unadorned, which serves to highlight the worshipful harmonizing. By the way, this older recording is worth having for the quality performances by some of CCM’s most prominent artists at that time.

“God Bless Us” on Hope for all the World, through poetic and poignant lyrics, and an inspirational arrangement comes closest to producing the same kind of stirring emotion as “Shine on Us.” Written by Scott Krippayne and Jeff Peabody, this alone makes the CD worth having. It’s especially meaningful for those who dreams have not been realized. This song brings solace and hope.

Most of the other non-traditional songs are like modern worship anthems that celebrate the birth of Christ. I mean this as a compliment. If you are looking for a mix of Christmas and contemporary forms of adoration, this is worth checking out.

One of the most pleasant surprises is the opening “Born is the King (It’s Christmas),” which has a distinctive Celtic sound. There is a forcefulness and stomp peculiar to new folk and Irish influences.

It shows the subtle variety. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” has an appropriate celestial quality, fitting for a song that makes reference to the night wind, sky and a star. The added hook to “O Come All Ye Faithful” has punch. It’s the same beloved song in new garb.

Producer Nathan Nockels (former member of the husband/wife duo Watermark) succeeds in making traditional songs sound fresh without significantly changing them. Among the supporting musicians is the versatile Gabe Scott, who collaborates with Andrew Peterson.

I suppose you could say that the acoustic/bluegrass medley of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman/We Three Kings,” is more rustic than present day, but then again, the old is continually reinvented in music circles, becoming something new. This includes a music box-sounding keyboard.

Though similar to previous worship releases in the group’s CCM heyday, this seems a little removed from it. The music is more sophisticated and varied, which makes Phillips, Craig & Dean sound better than ever.

All of the songs are spiritual with one exception, the closing “Jingle Bells (Duck Mix).” In our day I am not one to begrudge badly needed humor. I can only surmise that someone stumbled across a long lost recording of Donald Duck and company singing this childhood classic. The producer supplied instrumental backing with the utmost of a care. It all revolves around the miracle of a baby that would provide hope for the world.

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