Wednesday, November 16, 2011

In Review---Holiday CD Round-Up

Holiday Recordings 2011

Christmas with Cantus
Independent release

Elisabeth Lohninger Band
Christmas in July
Jazz Sick Records

Putumayo Presents Celtic Christmas
Putumayo World Music

Secret Garden
Winter Poem
Heart of Space Records/Valley Entertainment

I find holiday music deeply healing.  Here we are in the midst of the darkest time of year, but like a cup of hot chocolate or lights strung along houses, holiday music offers us warmth and comfort.

When I was a child, I couldn't wait for the holidays to arrive because I could pull out the Christmas albums and sing along with them.  I lost all sense of time and space.  I felt joy singing those songs, even the sad ones.  The first song I ever learned to play on the parlor organ was Silent Night and to this day, I still find the melody haunting.  My brother loved the song Do You See What I See? and certainly it was a favorite of mine too.

There is no shortage of holiday music, from Broadway send-ups, to salsa, Celtic, and everything you can imagine.  I tend to lean towards tradition.  I prefer a cup of hot chocolate, a slice of pumpkin pie, holiday lights twinkling and my favorite carols.  So with no further ado here is the holiday music round-up for 2011.

Christmas with Cantus is easily one of the most delightful holiday recordings I’ve heard in years.  The men’s choir based out of Minneapolis brings us tight and seamless polyphony as well as, new arrangements of favorite carols.  But the vocalists don’t stop with the familiar.  Take a listen to the haunting Slovenian carol of the 16th century (track 2) and Native American songs (‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime and Heleluyan).  Traditional French, English, and American gospel carols, hymns, and songs round off the recording. 

Ralph Vaughan William’s Coventry Carol, Gloria Shayne’s Do You Hear What I Hear and Little Drummer Boy often end up on choral Christmas recordings, but Cantus has given these old favorites new life.  Just listen to the acoustic drum jam on Pat-A-Drummer.  The entire album feels reverential and peaceful.  Cantus produced the perfect music to cheer you up on a cold and dark winter’s day.  And this is just the type of warmth I invite into my life this holiday season and beyond.

If you’re looking for an international jazz holiday recording, Elisabeth Lohninger Band brings us holiday fare from Scandinavia, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, Italy, France and Austria.  Mostly the warm production of this recording pleases my ears with Lohninger’s vocals adapting to the nuances of several languages, you think she was a global native.  It’s also a real treat to hear holiday music from Latin America, Japan, and France since these countries are underrepresented in North American holiday music collections.

The album opens with strains of Coltrane’s Giant Steps that segues into a sizzling jazz rendition of Christmas Song.  Take a listen to Walter Fischbacher’s hearty piano solo.  Os Meninos Da Mangueira swings to Brazilian samba—and who doesn’t want to escape to Brazil during a North American winter?  The salsa-fide Potpourri De Navidad (Mexico) livens up the holidays.  And the warm jazzy Mary’s Boy feels relaxing.  The only problem I have with this album which I hope would bring warmth to the holiday season is Axel Fischbacher’s guitar solos which sound out of place to my ears.  His electric guitar works better as a support instrument than providing listeners with crunchy blues solos.  Of course if electric guitar is your thing…

Leave it up to the folks at Putumayo World Music to come up with the warmest and most comforting holiday music album.  Celtic Christmas compilation features musicians from Ireland and beyond playing carols from the modern era and dating back to the 8th century.  Familiar songs like Good King Wenceslas (about feeding the needy), Joy to the World, White Christmas, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Auld Lang Syne all appear in this collection next to lesser known songs like the French Noel Nouvelet.  And some of these carols have morphed over the years to become popular holiday favorites.  The liner notes offer tidbits of historical information on the carols too.

Standouts on the compilation are Aine Minogue’s harp-centered Manx Jezebel Carol, Dougie MacLean’s heartfelt Auld Lang Syne, Druid Stone’s ethereal Noel Nouvelet with harp, flutes, and soprano vocals, the jazzy Good King Wenceslas and David Huntsinger’s  Angels We Have Heard on High which transforms into a foot tapping jig.  Actually it’s hard to pick any favorites on the compilation because the carols flow nicely into each other, with plenty of accordion, flutes, harps, and acoustic instruments to spare.  I know what I’ll be listening to this holiday season.

Staying with the Celtic vein, Secret Garden (Rolf Lovland and Fionnuala Sherry with 13 band members), offers new winter-themed compositions penned by Lovland.  The songs on Winter Poem range from the new age Make a wish, Dream (sung by Moya Brennan), the instrumental lament, Frozen in Time, to the lively jig Fionnuala’s Cookie Jar, and other relaxing instrumentals.  Only a handful of the songs feature vocals, most are instrumentals.  The album as a whole is piano and violin-centered and tension free for the most part.  In fact, Winter Poem could be listened to in several ways, as a tension-tamer at the end of a stressful day or moment, or as relaxing background music for a family gathering (when tension is present), or at bedtime.
This album falls on the melancholic-ethereal side so people who want to experience joyful and uplifting music during the holidays will find this album too sleepy.  However, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to play this music at retirement homes, hospitals, or in situations where a person needs a tension-free environment.  The music has a popular appeal and in the CD notes famous artists who have covered Rolf Lovland’s songs are mentioned including Barbara Streisand.    Personally, I find the album beautiful, with strong musical direction, but too melancholic for my taste.  I much prefer the Putumayo compilation mentioned earlier.

This concludes part one of the holiday music round-up.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

In review--The World's Woes (Tales of the Unknown)

Kyle Carey
Independent Release

I want to thank Angel Romero of World Music Central for forwarding me American songster Kyle Carey’s self-release Monongah.  The recording which blends Appalachian, light gospel, and Celtic folk sounds refreshing with its compelling stories.  Carey has talent to burn as a songwriter, and a mature, clear voice in which to deliver her stories—more or less tales with some intriguing characters.  Not only that the musician brings luminous musical talent on board with musicians from Lunasa and Cherish the Ladies, among others.

Her stories are sung against a lush background of mandolin, guitar, and banjo.  I think I might have heard some strings in there somewhere to, but it’s late in the day and my brain feels exhausted.   I do remember the sweet melodies that climb into my head and I catch myself humming them.  The cadence of Devil at your Back with its lilting guitar rolling along certainly fits that category and so does Virginia, a story about an authentic wayward woman, and so does the lament John Hardy’s Wife and the closing Adenine.

I listened to the album on headphones to pick up the nuances of the warm acoustic production.  I enjoy listening to Carey’s vocals and find them soothing and informative.  For anyone who enjoys hearty tales and strong melodies performed on acoustic instruments, this one’s for you.  I’m not sure why it took this long for a talent such as Kyle Carey to cross my path, but I’m glad the day finally arrived.