Bethlehem Skyline Vol. 2
Time: 14 tracks / 54 mins
Oh, Christmas albums, Christmas albums.... Why do labels mix up party tunes and worshipful tunes, almost side-by-side? Why do so many musicians cover Christmas songs, when they are competing against almost everybody else and so are often doomed from the start to making an inferior version? That was my first impression as I listened to this.
I vowed to listen the first few times without seeing the tracklist, to avoid pre-judging the artists involved. I thought I heard Leigh Nash, Jars of Clay and Relient K. I got it completely wrong, finding that none of those artists were involved at all, as I also grew to generally like the mix of songs. Most artists have recorded two songs, where one is a new one. This holds the collection together well.
Downhere have always impressed me by being on the intelligent and theologically-sorted end of CCM although I am still not too sure about their “Christmas in our Hearts” lyric: “Even if nobody said, ‘Happy Christmas!’ /Even if choirs and belfries made no sound /There would be peace on the Earth and forgiveness / ‘Coz it’s Christmas in our hearts.” It seems somehow to take away from the reality and power of the incarnation, but I don’t think that they intend this.
They have laced the song with Sufjan trimmings and it is very singable. One of the few bands with two lead singers and good ones they strip “Silent Night” right back to virtually à capella for over half of the song, with the most minimal piano. Towards the end strings intrude on the beautiful vocal arrangement, but it is still a very worthwhile inclusion. Their mix of thoughtful lyrics and easy melodies seems to have set the template for this compilation.
So Me in Motion’s tuneful “Give it Away,” though a bit formulaic, has a strong chorus that talks freshly about Christmas not being truly Christmas if we aren’t giving ourselves away. By contrast, their “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is a typical Busted or McFly boy-band sound. They take a nauseous song and make it enjoyable - just!
Let’s get the lesser tracks out of the way. High Valley’s only offering is a truly pointless, countrified “Away in a Manger.” Why ever would an adult band choose to not only cover a children’s song, but one that is so wrong (“the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” come on, again, get the truth of incarnation, please!)?
Jason Grey and Sixteen Cities each have two tracks that are predictable, passable and pleasant. Andrew Peterson typically offers poetic lyrics, but carried by forgettable music.
Step up, Lanae’ Hales. She is another artist with two very strong and different tracks. With “Carol of the Bells” she shows a talent for making mystical, ethereal music that still retains an indie-pop sensibility and here it suits the mood exactly. Leigh Nash is a good touch point for those who haven’t heard it. By contrast, she sings a humorous “Starving Artist Christmas,” a poppy piece that could become an annual radio treat. It feels like there is some truth under the comedy.
Matt Papa’s “Hope has Come” is another so-so offering, but their take on “Little Drummer Boy” stands head, shoulders and chest above anything else here. After an anonymous start, which originally got me wondering why anyone would try to compete with Bowie and Crosby, their harmonies start to fly and they make it their own. Guitar parts have a punk attitude that for the only time on this collection really lets you feel the hugeness of what Christmas is about, and fires the heart up for adoration. Yet there is also something borrowed from classic rock that gives this its power, as well as a truly felt vocal. It’s the best Christmas song that I have heard in a year.