New Music Reviews: Late-October Christmas Releases

by David Bruce Murray | October 30, 2019 4:15 PM

Click HERE[1] to listen to ALL of these new Christmas recordings for free at YouTube Music.

Christmastime Volume II by the Ball Brothers includes four classic and four new Christmas songs. Two non-seasonal bonus tracks are also included.

Pros: The arrangements of the classic songs (“The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year,” “The Christmas Song,” “Amen,” and “What Child Is This?”) are fresh and inventive. “December” is a re-worked lyric based on the song “September” (Earth, Wind, and Fire) and just an all-around fun track. The a cappella arrangement of “What Child Is This?” is the crowning jewel on Christmastime Volume II.

Cons: Having 8 songs with a Christmas theme followed by 2 songs that aren’t directly related to Christmas is weird despite the fact that they’re labeled “bonus tracks.” In fairness, if you pull up the album on YouTube Music (and I presume other streaming outlets), it will only list the 8 Christmas songs.

Song Titles: The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year; The Christmas Song; Amen; Light Of The World; Mary’s Boy Child; Merry Christmas With Love; December; What Child Is This; Old Church Choir (bonus track); The River (bonus track)
Rating: 4 1/2 Stars (scale of 1-5 Stars)
Release Date: October 21, 2019
Version Reviewed: YouTube Music

The Oak Ridge Boys are ending the 2010s with another Christmas recording, their third of the decade. Like The Boys Are Back (2010) and 17th Avenue Revival (2018), Down Home Christmas features the production talents of Dave Cobb who is known for his work with acts like The Highwaymen and more recently, Lady Gaga.

Pros: I review so many Christmas albums where 80-100% of the songs are well-worn favorites that I always consider it a bonus to hear new songs. My favorite of those introduced on Down Home Christmas is “Hallelujah Emmanuel.” The title track is pretty good, too. It reminded me of their 2005 song, “Uncle Luther Made The Stuffin’,” though the subject matter is not quite so tongue-in-cheek. William Lee Golden’s feature on the jazz piano ballad “South Alabama Christmas” (written by Jamey Johnson) is another highlight with lyrics like “our double-wide has no chimney.”

Cons: I generally like Dave Cobb’s raw approach to recording the Oaks, but some judicious vocal tuning would have improved this album. They are all beyond the age of 70 now (William Lee is 80!), so there would be zero shame in giving them a little digital help. Thematically, “Amazing Grace” would have probably been a better fit on the upcoming 2020 album which is also being produced by Dave Cobb[2], but Joe Bonsall’s spoken introduction helps explain why the song was included here.

Producer: Dave Cobb
Label: Lightning Rod Records
Song Titles: The Family Piano; Angels; Bring Daddy Home; Reindeer on the Roof; Silent Night; Hallelujah Emmanuel; Down Home Christmas; South Alabama Christmas; Don’t Go Pullin’ On Santa Claus’ Beard; Amazing Grace
Rating: 4 Stars (scale of 1-5 Stars)
Release Date: October 25, 2019
Version Reviewed: YouTube Music

The new Christmas release by The Singing Contractors is titled Building A Christmas To Remember. This is their second recording under the Gaither Gospel Series banner. (I reviewed[3] their first Gaither release, Working On A Building, this past February.) A DVD version of this product will be released in November.

Pros: The first three measures of “Winter Wonderland” hint this may be just another traditional arrangement of the classic song, but it quickly gives way to an infectious bluegrass rhythm. “There’s A Baby On The Way” is a nice new song about how Mary the mother of Jesus might have felt. The guitar fills and solo on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” make this track unique.

Cons: I wish more arrangements on Building A Christmas To Remember used the sort of misdirection that “Winter Wonderland” employed. “Tennessee Christmas” gets a little twangier each time it’s covered, “Here Comes Santa Claus” breaks out the jingling bells, and so forth. Your mileage may vary on the novelty versions of “Go Tell It on The Mountain” and “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late).” For me, the humor in both of those fell a little flat.

Label: Gaither Music Group
Song Titles: Winter Wonderland; Tennessee Christmas; Here Comes Santa Claus; Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; There’s A Baby On The Way; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; Silent Night; Go Tell It On The Mountain; Away In A Manger; Joy To The World; The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late); Mary, Did You Know?
Rating: 3 1/2 Stars (scale of 1-5 Stars)
Release Date: October 25, 2019
Version Reviewed: YouTube Music

Lateral Blue consists of Caleb Edwards (mandolin/vocals), Laura Epling (fiddle/vocals), Kyle Lee (banjo), and Kori Caswell (bass/vocals). They are based in Nashville, Tennessee and their new recording This Christmas is described as “progressive bluegrass.”

Pros: Most of the song titles are familiar, but the arrangements created by Lateral Blue are fresh, artistic takes. They’re skilled players, too. Even the bass guitar takes a turn at the melody on “Sleigh Ride.” The description “progressive bluegrass” means traditional instruments are used, but stereotypical bluegrass rhythms with the bass mindlessly alternating between the root and the fifth are avoided. Except, of course, on “Run, Run, Rudolph” when you least expect it, Lateral Blue delivers the most traditional bluegrass track on This Christmas. I highly recommend this recording for anyone who enjoys hearing new interpretations of traditional Christmas songs.

Cons: I heard an occasional out of tune note, though I can’t know for certain if they were deliberately bent askew. You never can be 100% sure with artsy music.

Label: Green Hill Records
Song Titles: This Christmas; Winter Wonderland; Go Tell It On The Mountain; Sleigh Ride; I’ll Be Home For Christmas; The Christmas Waltz; Run Rudolph, Run; I Saw Three Ships; Hard Candy Christmas; Please Come Home For Christmas; Joy To The World; Skating; The Christmas Song; River; We Wish You A Merry Christmas
Rating: 4 1/2 Stars (scale of 1-5 Stars)
Release Date: October 25, 2019
Version Reviewed: YouTube Music

Órla Fallon is an Irish harpist and singer whose voice shares the lilting quality of many Irish singers who have come before her. I reviewed[4] Fallon’s first Green Hill release back in May and found the pace of that recording to be draggy with instrumentation that wasn’t always precise. A Winter’s Tale is a more refined representation of Fallon’s skills.

Pros: A Winter’s Tale begins with “Codail A Linbh,” a lullaby to the Christ Child that Fallon sings mostly in Gaelic with a bit in English. This leads nicely into “Away In A Manger,” which is combined with the melody of Turlough O’Carolan’s traditional Irish harp song “Si Bheag Si Mhor.” As you can see from the track listing below, several more arrangements on A Winter’s Tale blend two melodies from ancient source material. Fallon’s vocals convey a sense of mysterious wonder which is just ideal for a serious Christmas recording. The a cappella “The Holly Bears A Berry” is delightful, and I enjoyed the liberties Fallon took with the melody on “Auld Lang Syne.”

Cons: There is too much reverb on the harp instrumentals “Eleanor Plunkett” and “Blind Mary.” Tones from previous chords constantly overlap and clash with new chords, making these the most disappointing tracks on A Winter’s Tale. I should also point out that some people will not enjoy a recording that mixes languages throughout, although I certainly enjoyed researching the English interpretations online. Click the highlighted song titles below to view some of the same pages I found in my research.

Label: Green Hill Records
Song Titles: Codail A Linbh[5]; Away In A Manger/Si Bheag Si Mhor[6]; In Dulci Jubilo/Sgt. Cahill’s Favorite[7]; Pat A Pan/Noel Nouvelet[8]; Eleanor Plunkett; Don Oiche Ud I mBeithil[9]; Carol Of The Bells/The Angel Gabriel; O Little Town Of Bethlehem; The Holly Bears A Berry/Craigburn Wood; O Holy Night; Blind Mary; Auld Lang Syne
Rating: 4 Stars (scale of 1-5 Stars)
Release Date: October 25, 2019
Version Reviewed: YouTube Music

Scott Miller’s Mountain Frontier Christmas can be added to the list of albums similar to the Smoky Mountain line of concept recordings. The hammered dulcimer is featured most, with flute, fiddle, and other instruments added to the mix.

Pros: Miller’s arrangements are somewhat more creative than those of Craig Duncan who popularized this style. “Joy To The World,” for example, is more of an early New World-style jig.

Cons: Miller’s hammered dulcimer has little dynamic range. Other instruments like fiddle and flute which could have elevated the quality of Mountain Frontier Christmas are similarly limited instead. I presume the intent of Miller is to not upstage the dulcimer since that is the featured instrument. Someone must be buying this music, or Green Hill wouldn’t keep making new recordings in this style. I don’t know why, because it’s rather bland and boring.

Label: Green Hill Records
Song Titles: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; O Come, O Come Emmanuel; Away In A Manger; Angels We Have Heard On High; I Wonder As I Wander; Joy To The World; Noel Nouvelet; Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus; Silent Night; What Child Is This?; The Wexford Carol; O Come All Ye Faithful
Rating: 2 1/2 Stars (scale of 1-5 Stars)
Release Date: October 25, 2019
Version Reviewed: YouTube Music

Like this:

  1. HERE:
  2. Dave Cobb:
  3. I reviewed:
  4. I reviewed:
  5. Codail A Linbh:
  6. Si Bheag Si Mhor:
  7. Sgt. Cahill’s Favorite:
  8. Noel Nouvelet:
  9. Don Oiche Ud I mBeithil:

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