Artist: Annie Moses Band
Album: This Glorious Christmas
In Brief: Worth hearing for aficionados of instrumental, improvisational, genre-bending holiday music. Check it out when December 2009 rolls around, I guess.
“Aw, man! First they send me Casting Crowns‘ Christmas album, and now they expect me to listen to a holiday CD by some no-name country band? Forget that!”
I should know better than to judge a CD by its cover. But as the year 2008 comes to a close, I’ve realized that I have very little patience left for a lot of the Christian music that I’m being sent by a label with the hopes that I’d write up a review and give them some publicity in exchange for a free CD. It used to be that I’d be willing to give anything a listen and write up my honest opinion of it, whether gushing or scathing. That seemed like a fun idea five years ago. These days, I generally find myself not having the time, so I write up reviews of the promo CDs that I have the most positive response to, save most of the vehemently negative responses for brief write-ups in my year-end “Bottom 10” list, and generally forget about the stuff in between that isn’t good enough or terrible enough to warrant a mention. It piles up in a stack of jewel cases by my computer monitor, and sometimes several months will pass before I’ll give some of those CDs a second chance. Feeling like I was already falling way behind on this task, knowing I was no longer enjoying it, and realizing that it was still October, I didn’t exactly feel ready to give the Annie Moses Band a snowball’s chance in hell to impress me.
I guess snowballs have better chances of survival in December. Around the time I finally decided it was acceptable to finally crack open Sixpence None the Richer‘s new holiday morsel, I remembered that I had the AMB’s This Glorious Christmas sitting on my desk unopened, and I decided to give it a closer look. “Hey wait, this isn’t a country album after all… I mean, they have violins and stuff on the cover, but it looks like they’re more of a bluegrass or classical ensemble.” When in doubt, try actually reading the press materials, dummy! As it turns out, the Annie Moses Band (comprised of bandleader Annie Wolaver and several of her siblings and other members of the Wolaver clan) bills themselves as a “chamber pop” act, and there’s a formidable amount of instrumental talent in the band to back up the press material’s description of their being a pop/jazz/classical hybrid. They’ve been doing the indie thing for the past few years, honing their craft and building up a grassroots fanbase through their live shows, and for some strange reason, they found it appropriate to release a Christmas record as their major label debut. For most acts, this would probably be career suicide, but for a band who seems to excel at reinterpreting old favorites even moreso than they do at writing original songs, this works in their favor. We’ve all probably known most of the classic carols heard on this CD since childhood. But in a day and age where I’m sick and tired of hearing most of them get re-recorded, I can truly say that I’ve never heard them played with such fervor, attention to detail, and in some cases, such lively improvisation. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this unassuming-looking bunch has serious enough chops that they might just make Nickel Creek a little jealous. (Well, maybe not jealous. But perhaps it might make them regret that they’re no longer performing together. The AMB hasn’t yet proven to me that they have the compositional skill or overall addictive personality of a band like Nickel Creek, but it ain’t a bad stylistic comparison.)
Here’s another stylistic comparison for you – Twila Paris fronting Iona. I can’t take credit for that one – I stole it from Christianity Today’s review of this album. But I can corroborate that claim. Annie’s gentle cooing reveals a voice well-suited for more of a classical approach, and it’s also got that “Dear mother in the kitchen baking bread” sort of quality to it, from way back in the day when most female CCM singers were a little too “June Cleaver” for my tastes. That’s not a criticism. It’s just the voice that she has, and she uses it to great effect to give this album’s few vocal tracks a homespun warmth that suits its holiday theme. Actually, since most of this record is instrumental, it’s the Iona and Nickel Creek comparisons that come to mind much more often. The group’s penchant for complex rhythms and slightly jazzy bits of percussion and occasional bits of Celtic flare do make me think of Iona, just in less of a prog-rock setting. The violin and viola and cello are obviously what bring the Nickel Creek element to the mix. It’s an intoxicating blend, one that only falters when their instrumental meandering deviates too far from the basic melody of a carol to make it identifiable as such, or when they make a seriously miscalculated attempt to show some patriotism on the album’s final song. While that last one’s a faux pas of epic proportions, and quite possibly the thing that stole an otherwise likely five-star rating from the band, it’s listed as a “bonus track” and it’s easy enough to ignore if you can remember to turn the CD off after the last few instrumentals, which admittedly are a bit less epic in their scope, making it easy to lose one’s place.
Those little gripes aside, it’s hard for me to find any reasons to hate the Annie Moses Band. Given that I expected something thoroughly mushy and awful, this rare occurrence of staggering musical talent getting signed to a CCM major label feels like a cause for much rejoicing.
1. Sussex Intro
A brief acapella performance to introduce an instrumental version of a Christmas carol? Strange, but that’s how this band rolls. I guess it serves to make us more likely to recognize a traditional carol that, for some of us, may seem like one of the more obscure ones. The three ladies that front this band do sound quite delicious singing all together – maybe they should explore more acapella arrangements in the future.
2. Sussex Carol
Lively stringed instruments take over just when the vocals drop out, turning what was probably a distinguished, refined, and stately British-sounding carol into a bit of a bluegrass/Celtic hybrid, which runs the gamut from upbeat and frenetic to calm and tranquil, as the speed and tone of the performance ebb and flow over the course of three and a half minutes. This version has a rather loose concept of tempo, morphing from fast to slow and back again, so it’s kind of a weird thing to put at the forefront of an album, but I kind of like this band’s penchant for tackling traditional genres in a decidedly un-traditional fashion.
3. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
This is the piece de resistance, the performance that brings the house down. I’ve never heardsuch a radical transformation of a carol that I’ve known for ages, that sounded so different and yet worked so well for me. Camille Wolaver‘s harp and Bejamin Wolaver‘s cello paint a deceptively tranquil atmosphere in the opening moments of the song, changing the familiar 4/4 rhythm we’re all used to singing this one in to a flowing 6/8, which gives no warning of the abrupt change to a jazzier style and a 5/8 time signature (!) that lies ahead. Improvisation and precision are the hallmarks of the band’s performance here – it must have taken a lot of practice to meld together the complex rhythmic change-ups, the generous amounts of solo time offered to a few different players, and the thoroughly wholesome chorus of sisterly vocals that leads the song. This is where we first hear Annie Wolaver’s voice standing apart from her sisters for a few verses, and while its warbling sweetness seems incongruous at first, it serves to further remove the band from a specific place, time, or musical trend. Other than the crisp production values, it would be hard to tell what era this had been recorded in, if one were to look back upon it several decades later. As if the maze of delicious sounds weren’t complicated enough, Annie’s violin and Alex Wolaver‘s viola team up to change the song into an Irish jig during one verse. The violin is played on its high end, strangely resembling an Irish whistle of some sort, to the point where I didn’t know it wasn’t a whistle until I watched the accompanying DVD. With all due respect to my longtime favorite band Jars of Clay, this version of “God Rest” has easily trumped all others to become my favorite.
4. Bethlehem, House of Bread
Honor stands upon your name
How beautiful, how right
This Child, the Bread of life
Should grace your gates tonight…
The first of a few originals on the album (written by Mom and Pop Wolaver in this case, I believe) shows up next, sung by Annie in a bit of an operatic style with light but dramatic piano accompaniment. It’s an ageless-sounding modern carol that sounds like it could have been snatched from a film soundtrack. The sisters’ backing vocals are chillingly beautiful here, and the swelling of the strings similarly evocative, in a song that muses on the meaning of the name given to the town in which Christ was born. By midway through the song, the harp and strings have taken center stage, and it’s enough to momentarily make me think that Christ’s birth might have occured in a much greener and rainier country whose name also starts with an “I”. Most original songs on Christmas albums pale in comparison to the standards – not so with this one.
5. What Child Is This
The harp intro here feels a lot like the intro from “God Rest”, just slowed down a bit, but this doesn’t bother me because I’m hypnotized by the sound of that angelic instrument every time. This take on another classic carol may as well just be called “Greensleeves”, because it’s purely instrumental, and you could sing either set of lyrics to it. They’re much more faithful to the standard arrangement of this one, deviating from the melody for the occasional dramatic pause or massive sweeling of the string section, but they were right to not try to jazz this one up. It made sense to keep it purely classical.
6. O Come, O Come Emmanuel
This one starts with more of a “smooth jazz” sort of feel thanks to the soft piano and delicate percussion at first – but it quickly takes a left turn into hipper territory thanks to an arrangement similar to the one used on “God Rest”. It’s a good choice, even if it runs the risk of feeling like a bit of deja vu. They don’t do as much stylistic morphing here, but the insertion of jazz chords and playful string interludes into this usually somber carol help to put the band’s own stamp on this ancient carol without diluting the wonder and majesty of it. Annie sings a few verses (with her sisters doing some interesting modal stuff by singing their background vocals in a different key at a few points), but the arrangement is instrumental for the most part – and quite generous at over five minutes.
7. Little Baby
They need to hear about You
They need Your healing touch
They need to be forgiven
They need to know You love them so much…
The second original written by the Wolaver parents takes a more contemporary path, with much more simplistic language and more of an evangelical bent to its lyrics. This is actually more of the “light country-pop” sort of stuff that I expected the entire album to sound like, but given its musical straightforwardness (I think it’s one of few songs on this album played entirely in 4/4 with a constant tempo throughout), it has an innocent charm that makes it agreeable enough. It essentially addresses the needs of troubled individuals in the here and now to get to know the “little baby” born on the holiday that almost everyone celebrates, but that few really seem to reflect on the meaning of. I’ve heard this same though expressed more eloquently, so the real reason that the song doesn’t fall flat is because of the instrumental skill present – adding a glistening touch of class to a fairly basic pop song is never an easy task if you don’t want to end up with laughable elevator music.
8. When the Christmas Baby Cries
Mountain pine weighed down so low
Branches bowed with silent snow
But underneath the glistening
The wordless wood is listening…
Another original composition follows, continuing with the “baby” theme, almost as if the band wanted to write their own version of “Silent Night”, giving it more of a wintry, minor-key, dramatic flair. The result sounds strikingly Twila Paris-ish given Annie’s warm, motherly vocals describing the beauty of the baby Jesus crying as any newborn baby would, assigning a poetic significance to those cries that echoes hope into a cold world and effectively banishes winter… yeah, you pretty much have to take this with a generous heaping of poetic license, or it makes very little sense. (Especially with that whole thing about how Jesus was probably really born in July or whatever.) I’m so taken with the intricacies of the composition, the majestically soaring melody, and the group’s ability to create something so powerful out of something so quiet, that all of my other little nitpicks tend to fly out the window whenever I listen to this one.
9. We Three Kings
Another one of my childhood favorites shows up here, but like pretty much all recorded versions of this song, they don’t sing that creepy verse about myrrh and dying and tombs and stuff that I was fascinated with and wondered why we always skipped when I was a kid. But that’s only because they don’t sing any of it. You have to pay attention to this one to catch that it’s “We Three Kings” at first – the song’s initial hook comes from a mandolin sprinkling an original counter-melody into the song, and while the strings follow the original melody and take over the song in due time, they deviate from the melody and doodle in the margins here and there. No drums or piano or anything non-orchestral here, but the strings do get quite busy, almost reminding me of buzzing bees as they furiously swoop about. It’s another deceptive arrangement that turns out to be a lot less sedate than it might originally seem.
10. Go Tell It on the Mountain
Even before I knew that this song had African-American origins as opposed to the rest of the mild-mannered carols of European origin that everyone seems to learn as a kid, I could tell that something was different about the melody and the overall feel of this song. Something about it was less melancholy and more soulful. That said, it’s pretty freaking weird to hear a classical/Celtic type arrangement of it that attempts to morph it back into more of a European style. I can’t say this arrangement isn’t beautiful, and I can’t say it’s not stirring – it reminds me very much of Nickel Creek’s penchant for covering songs from well outside their expected genre boundaries. But something about this one is a little too “mannered”. It almost needs to have a beat or some handclaps or some soulful backing vocals (which probably couldn’t be the vocals in this band – sorry ladies, but you’re all too soprano for that!) to make it feel more genuine. But I appreciate their willingness to take it on and to translate it into their own musical language.
11. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
The “official” end of the album happens in rather sleepy fashion here, with the languid piano and string-based arrangement of this carol going back to that “movie soundtrack” sort of feel – but from the black-and-white days, circa It’s a Wonderful Life. Three relatively short instrumentals in a row probably wasn’t the most attention-getting way to end this album (the bonus track that follows this notwithstanding), but I can’t say anything bad about this one. It’s a faithful reading of another beloved oldie-but-goodie, leaving a little bit of room for the band to intro and outro it with their original melodic inclinations, while making sure the main melody remains recognizable.
12. Red, White & Blue Christmas
Like the 4th of July and December 25
All wrapped up into one, you can double all the fun…
The old-school soft rock/slow dance type beat of this song is honestly a rude awakening when this bonus track shows up after the album proper is over. This was likely marked as a “bonus track” for two reasons – it’s markedly more sentimental and contemporary than the rest of the disc, and judging from the copyright date of 2003, the Wolaver parents wrote it a while back and it’s probably a re-recording of a song that the band’s been performing for a while. This one falls squarely into the category of “gushy non-spiritual songs” that generally comprise everything that I hate about Christmas music, though in this case, it’s not about loving the snowy weather and the certainty of long lost loved ones coming home for Christmas and all that stuff that I can’t relate to. It’s worse than that, actually. The band decided to let their politics hang out by way of writing a patriotic Christmas song, one which is as grossly out of place on this highly reverent and reflective album as “There She Stands” was on Michael W. Smith‘s Worship Again. Annie sings an ode to her “hero”, presumably a husband who can’t be home for the holidays because he’s off fighting a war. Hey, I have no problem with supporting the troops or within honoring a particular soldier’s heroic bravery (because it takes far more guts than I will personally ever have to voluntarily join any branch of the military), but things get far too kitschy for comfort when Annie gleefully swoons about her “Santa” flying a “red B52, shootin’ fireworks at midnight through the star-spangled blue”. Um, lady, your man is dropping bombs that are intended to kill people. This may be a necessary evil of war, and sure, he’s brave for signing up to do a dirty job that is a measure of last resort, but regardless of your political views, I think it should be plainly obvious to any follower of the “Christmas baby” that it’s in extremely poor taste to romanticize bloodshed. Aside from all that, I just get uncomfortable when Christian singers intermingle “God and country” as if one necessarily always supported the other – I love my country and all, but I think a holiday that’s meant to promote “peace on earth and goodwill to men” vastly supercedes our sense of national pride, y’know? Oh well, that’s the sort of tasteless confusion of priorities that I’ve come to expect from the Christian music industry these days. What can you do?
Despite the nagging bad taste that the album’s final track leaves in my mouth, This Glorious Christmas turned out to be buried treasure. The band even threw in a bonus DVD featuring live performances of five of this album’s highlights (which I should note sound almost exactly like the album versions – so either they overdubbed, they’re good at faithfully recreating these versions live, or the CD was actually mixed from the soundboards at that particular performance – regardless, they’re fun to watch), as well as a featurette about the band’s first few years, to get new fans up to speed. It’s not a necessity, but it is a nice gesture considering it comes with the CD and isn’t being sold separately as a lot of bands with more established names might do. That makes it a bit of icing on the cake, rather than the frivolous waste of cash that it might have been if sold separately. (Take note, artists who put live DVDs on the market – if they’re to be marketed as their own separate thing and not bundled with a CD, they need to be full concerts, or else don’t bother!)
While it’s a bit late to recommend that you go out and snag yourself a copy of This Glorious Christmas to warm up with by the fireplace this Christmas, I guess you can keep it in mind for the 2009 yuletide season (or pick it up anyway if you’re one of those sentimental saps who thinks it’s acceptable to listen to Christmas music all year round – I’m sure you’ll get a discount anyway). If you like it, you can send me a big fat lump of coal for not telling you about it sooner.
Oh, and that Casting Crowns Christmas album? I never listened to it. And I feel no remorse about that.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Sussex Intro $.50
Sussex Carol $1.50
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen $2
Bethlehem, House of Bread $1
What Child Is This $1
O Come, O Come Emmanuel $1.50
Little Baby $1
When the Christmas Baby Cries $2
We Three Kings $1
Go Tell It on the Mountain $.50
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear $.50
Red, White & Blue Christmas -$1
Annie Wolaver: Violin, lead vocals
Alex Wolaver: Viola, vocals
Benjamin Wolaver: Cello
Camille Wolaver: Harp
Gretchen Wolaver: Violin, mandolin
Bill Wolaver: Piano, keyboards
Robin Wolaver: Vocals
Jeremiah Wolaver: Guitar, banjo
Mario Sangermano: Bass
J. Javier Santiago: Percussion
Originally published on Epinions.com.