In lieu of updating this thing 12 times with 12 different Christmas albums in a theme I like to call “Chris is starting to show OCD tendencies”, I decided to update 3 times this week with 3 different Christmas albums. They will represent the Good, the Bad, and the Twisted*, and believe me, there is nothing I’ve needed more this year than something Good in Christmas music, which is why today’s entry is about an album that I still can’t believe exists, Smalltown Poets Christmas:
Why would a Smalltown Poets album about Christmas be such a surprise? Well, as I might have mentioned before, the band has been on hiatus for 7 years. That’s longer than I’ve even been in bands (well, good ones anyway), so it’s like being visited by the ghost of Christian Rock past.
Still, the thing that finally brought them all back together after so long was making a Christmas album, so it stands to reason that it wound up being a pretty good Christmas album, right?
Yeah, try the best Christmas album ever.
Now, you may have heard from somewhere that I am decidedly NOT a fan of Christmas music. Without going back into all the nasty opinions I have about the institution (I’m saving that for tomorrow), I will re-iterate that Christmas music has a habit of being very cheeseball and almost incoherent in the face of the rather broad cultural changes that occurred between the 50’s and today. I am almost sure that at least 3 generations grew up wondering why Jingle Bell Rock doesn’t actually rock (because that’s what they HAD for “rock” back in the 50’s).
In the glut of overdone Bing Crosby hits, hideous novelty songs, and the rank odor of popular artists “cashing in” on the holiday with their own take on Christmas, one may begin to crave, even ache for, some piece of genuine Christmas love that touches the soul and reminds us, as a TV special once did, what the true meaning of Christmas is. Luckily for you, Dear Reader, I am about to tell you about an album that does just that!
Christmas opens up with guitar feedback, which may seem unsettling, but don’t worry, they’ve got this under control. You then hear church bells (how I love church bells in music), and just as this seemingly epic song starts to swell, it all simply goes away, and in its place, a piano starts playing “The Carol of the Bells”, but immediately after that, a voice starts singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” over the tune to Carol of the Bells. It almost seems unfair that a Christmas song can be that awesome, but that floored me about this recording, and we’re not even a minute into the song.
As if that wasn’t enough, all the OTHER instruments burst into the song and give it a full rock band sound for like a second, and then mostly disappear for another verse, comes back in again, and then disappears entirely so that Michael Johnston’s amazing voice (which sounds just as good if not better than it did in 1997) takes a chorus entirely unaccompanied, then suddenly the song becomes a verse of “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, which gave this old Calvinist chills.
In listening to this album, expect amazing moments like this to pop up with absolutely no warning. On top of these smooth and introspective interpretations of classic hymns, Smalltown Poets took it upon themselves to refer to other songs within the songs, and you’ll find yourself wishing that these parts were actually longer, which is surely the sign of a good recording.
Speaking of good, the second track of the album is “In The Bleak Midwinter“, which, while listening to the album without looking at the CD liner notes, I was SURE was a Smalltown Poets original, as it’s a beautiful poem contained in this heart-breaking melody, but no! It’s totally a hymn (based on a 19th century poem, no less!) from 1906! How did they find an awesome Christmas hymn that I have somehow never heard before?
Still, there is no shortage of well-known hymns given the modern rock treatment. In particular, “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” and “The First Noel” (the latter featuring a really cool drum part from Byron Goggins) are given the full rock band treatment, but certainly not to their detriment; in fact, the backing parts doing an amazing job reminding one that these old familiar melodies are actually still really strong, and nothing is going to get in their way.
I will say this, however, the backing parts and re-arrangements (many of which are credited to Danny Stephens, SP’s errant keyboardist, boy am I glad he’s back) actually help some of the hymns that I feel don’t really stand on their own otherwise. I’ve never been a big fan of “Good Christian Men Rejoice” with its traditionally bouncy 2/4 brashness, but Smalltown Poets slow it down, add some tasty Kevin Breuner guitar goodness and a cool groove from bassist Miguel DeJesus and drummer Byron Goggins, and then throw in an almost secret taste of “Silent Night” to make this song a real stand-out on the album. My heart grew 3 sizes that day.
In fact, speaking of the “Silent Night” interval, one of the most interesting things about this album is how satisfied it seems with simply reminding us of certain songs without actually playing them all the way through. “We Three Kings“, “Angels We Have Heard On High“, and others are only introduced briefly before giving way to something else. I am fascinated by this, because it seems to me that, instead of being this showcase of the band saying “Look what we can do!” by making a huge production out of every song, the album is just this kind of fluid journey through these beautiful yuletide melodies, and even without singing the words, you understand what is being said here. Then the band gets back into the full-form songs and they just become all that much better.
Possibly my favorite hymn to receive a much-needed rearrangement is “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” (especially after Dylan’s version, yeesh). I am not kidding when I say I may have been cutting onions during the first 4 or 5 listens of this song, but the lyrics to the song are incredible, and the Poets even include my favorite verse that seems to go unnoticed in other versions, so kudos to the boys for that one.
Another great thing about this album is that there actually are original songs to be heard. They’re given almost no spotlight (and, in fact, you may mistaken them for the traditional songs like I did), but are nonetheless excellent. “On Christmas Day” is kind of a reworking of Ave Maria (which I’m not too familiar with, being Protestant, but it’s a good tune) that has some great lyrics, and the penultimate track is “His Delight“, which is a great kind of folky song that I’m still trying to wrap my head around.
Speaking of wrapping one’s head around something, there is an almost uncharacteristically bouncy track close to the middle of the album called “St. Nick Is Alright” which evokes both memories of SP’s second album (which I need to get on here soon) and The Beatles during that magical mystery era (at least at the end). It’s a sweet song, and it’s always interesting to hear a Christian group essentially singing about Santa Claus, but they handle it so gracefully that it then becomes something to ponder further, which is something I’ve almost never done with a Christmas song, much less one about St. Nick. As impressive as this album is, I am not surprised in the least to find myself hearing the songs multiple times to find some more hidden ideas and meaning, until I think of it as a Christmas album again and notice that Christmas will be over next week.
Thus, Smalltown Poets have performed what I can only describe as a Christmas Miracle; they recorded a Christmas album that I am going to sorely miss when the season is over. From beginning to end, this is a superior album by any standard, and is a bright spot in anyone’s existence, especially if they find themselves brought down by what Christmas has become thanks to modern culture, which I will get to soon enough, but for now, thank you, Smalltown Poets, for bringing Christmas its soul back.
I seriously can’t wait for these guys to record another album of originals, and if this recording is an indication, they may be able to outdo even their earliest work, which would be awesome. Until then, please check out Christmas and give it a purchase or two, and make it part of your Christmas antidote for yet another rendition of “White Christmas” or “Rudolph The Red Nose-I can’t even finish that title”. Merry Christmas, everyone!
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*Note: I never did write this third entry. There’s always Christmas 2012 I guess!