I got married in November, which means I’ve been celebrating my way through the last few weeks instead of listening to new Christmas music. This means that instead of meaningful reviews, I have a large list of things that you and I should both listen to. I regret nothing. ONWARD!
The Good Shepherd Band, which released a beautiful Christmas album in 2011, are back with a new one entitled All the Bells Shall Ring. If it’s anything like the opener “O Come Let Us Adore Him” (starting off with an Advent hymn; I approve) and the last album, we’re in for big, church-style hymns in oft-triumphant arrangements. Wonderful!
Quirky, reverb-heavy indie-pop band SUNBEARS! offer up a 10-minute EP of Christmas music. It’s sure to be as thoroughly enthusiastic as its name: SUNBEARS! Do CHRISTMAS!
Vintage-style acoustic duo The Singer and the Songwriter are dropping 12 songs (in video form!) for the 12 Days of Christmas. Sounds lovely! Check it at their YouTube.
Standards are difficult to do well: with a well-established ethos behind the song, it’s a daunting task to appropriate that backstory creatively or entirely rework its history for a new era. When that standard is a song that everyone knows, it gets even harder—and that’s why lots of Christmas albums are stinkers. Thankfully, Repeat the Sounding Joy is not one of those albums.
The Good Shepherd Band has done two things very right: chose primarily little-known or under-appreciated Christmas songs, and played to its musical strengths. When the band sticks to these tactics, the songs are great successes. When the members stray, things do not go as well.
It’s harder to mess up “Who Is This So Weak and Helpless” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” than “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” or “Joy to the World” because the former histories aren’t as storied as the latter’s. The band can let the obscure songs land in what (to the listener) feels most natural to The Good Shepherd Band: melodic, quiet treatments orchestrated in subtle Sufjan-esque touches.
This style creates the high highs of the album: standout “Who Is This” features a gorgeous oboe, the pristine rendition of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” builds off gentle piano and guitar, and “Long Expected Jesus” strikes the right balance of traditional and modern rhythms within the tune. These tunes are reverent, expertly arranged, and relevant. I can already tell that they will be worth revisiting each year.
When the band goes for unusual arrangements and/or more common songs, the outcomes are less successful. “The Seven Joys of Mary” features traditional English folksong rhythmic patterns and a children’s choir; the juxtaposition against the modern indie of the first two tracks is jarring and unpleasant. “The Lord at First Did Adam Make” is a crooning, ’50s-style rockabilly tune, which is even more of a head-scratcher.
It feels that “Joy to the World” was turned into a 9:00-minute epic (complete with brash choir and triumphal horns) primarily because the band felt that it had to leave its mark on the song. The band has proven that it can make more riveting tunes in a shorter time and a different style, making this one stick out like a sore thumb. Furthermore, the choir is used differently and to much better effect in the slow-burning, powerful “I Wonder as I Wander.”
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” falls into the “we have make this our own” trap too, as the vocal syncopation is off-putting and clashes with the rest of the tasteful, restrained arrangement style that marks their best work. This makes the odd vocals all the more a bummer.
The Good Shepherd Band can certainly be commended for this: they go big or go home. Repeat The Sounding Joy has some brilliant highs and terrible lows, but no forgettable tunes. I can thoroughly recommend 2/3rds of this album (especially “Who Is This So Weak and Helpless,” “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “I Wonder as I Wander”) to any lover of Christmas tunes; there are just a few renditions that you have to watch out for. Hopefully there will be a second version of this album, giving us even more goodness with a few tweaks in their methodology.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.