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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Christmas Bright & Beautiful
Artist: the Annie Moses Band
Label: manAlive Records
Time: 12 tracks / 33:58
Who’s got a white beard and gives Christmas presents to lots of good little girls and boys? That’s right – Bill Wolaver (well, who did you think I meant?) This year Bill has created his own unique arrangements of classic Christmas songs so that he and his troupe of musical helpers could produce a stunning CD that will, indeed, bring a Christmas Bright & Beautiful to all of those who love the season and look forward to new renditions of their perennial favorites. Bill plays piano and creates the arrangements, joined by his veritable Santa’s workshop of musicians, made up mostly of his amazingly talented children (Annie on violin, Gretchen on second violin and mandolin, Alex on viola, Benjamin on cello, and Camille on harp), who are ably aided by Javier Santiago on percussion and Mario Sangermano on string bass.
Unlike the Annie Moses Band’s previous Christmas CD, Bethlehem House of Bread, this collection is an all-instrumental project and includes only two tracks featuring new music, and those are short interludes. The focus here is to highlight the music that we’ve all grown up with, performed in the signature Annie Moses Band style: brilliantly arranged music performed with brilliant technique and just enough sentimentality and ‘soul’ to keep things interesting. The songs are familiar to the ear and to the heart, but are set in the richly textured musical genre that the Wolavers continue to explore and expand to the frustration of those who would attempt to label it – indeed, the term ‘chamber pop’ seems far too small to describe what this sometimes string quartet, sometimes string trio, backed by piano, harp, mandolin, percussion, and occasionally, string bass and guitar, actually produce in terms of a sound. One thing is certain: the Annie Moses Band never fails to impress.
Christmas Bright & Beautiful delivers everything you could ask for in a traditional collection of Christmas songs. Most of the compositions here date from the mid-to-late eighteen hundreds but come to new life as they’re re-invented in the skilled hands of the Wolavers as they weave familiar melodies through different timings, slipping between minor and major keys, embellishing time-honored themes with sweeping string-work and sweet harmony.
The first three tracks, “Sussex Carol,” “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” are somewhat of a trilogy, as they blend almost seamlessly together (“O Little Town of Bethlehem” actually begins with an echo of the opening phrase of the previous track), although the mood of the bright and sprightly pair of opening songs shifts to a more sentimental, almost melancholy tone on the third. “Away in a Manger,” continues the warm ‘sitting by the hearth’ feeling, as the ensemble introduction gives way to the melody played by mandolin accompanied by piano. The melody is picked up again by viola, then again by violin, as the full string ensemble returns with piano, at the end. Amazing precision ‘runs’ of violin and mandolin feature strongly in the African American spiritual, “Go Tell it on the Mountain,’ with its Appalachian/country string harmony sound. The haunting melody of “What Child is This,” is introduced on cello, only to return, after many interesting variations, at the end of the piece played by the lead violin. The order is reversed on the slow, reverent treatment of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” where we get the melody stated first by the violin, and then echoed by the cello. The memorable song goes into a more aggressive, triumphant-sounding passage, which leads back into the more traditional tempo and string treatment. “We Three Kings” is where the band gets to swing, although not to the extent of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” from their previous holiday offering, which was a startlingly jazzy tour de force – still, the swinging violins playing harmony runs against the percussive attack of the cello is quite impressive and a great change of pace. Classically lovely renditions of “Adeste Fidelis” and “Silent Night Holy Night,” round out this outstanding collection of Christmas tracks that will no-doubt become a staple in our household.
This is perfect music for that night when you set up your tree, for your family gatherings, or for when you have that reflective moment, late on Christmas Eve, after all of the gifts have been carefully wrapped and placed under the tree, and you get to sit with the one you love, watching the fire crackle in the fire place…. Or at least, while you’re watching that channel that shows the Yule-log burning for 24 hours (it can’t all be perfect…).
Christmas Bright & Beautiful by the Annie Moses Band deserves a place as part of your annual family Christmas traditions.
and a mug of hot cocoa..