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City on a Hill: It's Christmas Time
Artist: Various 
Label: Essential Records (2002)
Length: 12 Tracks (40:41 minutes)

Despite the extraordinary commercial success and nearly unanimous critical acclaim heaped upon each of the first three City on a Hill projects, at least a few listeners are bound to wonder how many times producer Steve Hindalong can go to the well before it threatens to run dry.  Be that as it may, the newest addition to the COAH family, It's Christmas Time, looks poised to set even the staunchest of skeptics at rest.  The characteristically unpretentious lyrics and graceful instrumentation of Hindalong and co-producer Derri Daugherty instill the lead-off title song with a simultaneous sense of subdued reverence and joy-filled wonder.  Leigh Nash's delicate and ethereal voice lends a similar feeling of tacit awe to her beautiful and austere rendition of "Silent Night."  Cliff and Danielle Young of Caedmon's Call prove more than worthy interpreters of "Babe in the Straw" from Daugherty and Hindalong's 1995 Noel release, while Mac Powell and Julie Miller distill Miller's decade-old "Manger Throne" down to its gloriously earthy countrified essence.  And Michael Tait closes the proceedings with perhaps the most compelling vocal performance of his now-extensive catalog with his stirring interpretation of "O Holy Night."

A few of the tracks, such as Out of Eden's rendition of "Do You Hear What I Hear" and the self-penned "Bethlehem Town" from Jars of Clay, although certainly fine enough compositions in their own right, feature an undergirding syncopation that works in slight opposition to the album's otherwise straight-ahead rhythms.  Similarly, the Paul Colman Trio's take on "In the Bleak Midwinter," while undeniably pleasant enough, falls just shy of capturing the endearingly distinctive trait now associated with the City on a Hill namesake.  These minute snags notwithstanding, the lion's share of the Christmas falls blissfully in line with its unique and triumphant precursors.  Indeed, with most artists opting to relegate their holiday releases to either toss-offs or vanity projects - neither of which make for particularly riveting listening - the Christmas Time project opts for the path less taken, offering up a decidedly better-than-average collection of songs that places it squarely in league with the City series' other three impressive volumes.

Bert Gangl 10/12/2002

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