Modern Christmas music is sadly a strictly hit or miss affair. When an artist really pours their heart, soul and personal experiences into a project, however, it stands out. Jars of Clay first dabbled in the Christmas spirit twelve years ago with The Drummer Boy EP and returns with their first full-length venture, Christmas Songs. From the instrumental opener to its grand finale with "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," the band establishes and ultimately maintains a unique and fresh sound that is altogether modern and classic at the same time.
As the first release since the band's departure from their career-long relationship with Essential Records, Christmas Songs seems to display the freedom the band now feels as an independent act. The songs are lush and festive, with the vibe of the album capturing the wide array of emotions the season can bring. The haunting intro of "The Gift Of St. Cecilia" is a wonderful mood-setter, with a delightful take on Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" following. A special treat for Jars fans is the return of a number of the string players from the band's legendary debut for the first time since that recording. Because of this, there's an added familiar creative and accessible brilliance that is washed over the whole of Christmas Songs, helping to make the record not only a successful modern day Christmas project, but also one of the band's best albums yet.
Songs like "Love Came Down At Christmas," an underplayed classic written by Christina Rossetti in the 1800's, and the popular "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" are given an artful touch by Jars, with the latter receiving an especially unique arrangement. One of the album's true strokes of genius comes in the form of "Hibernation Day," a pure throwback to the fun and charming classics of the 1950's. Featuring guest vocals by Christine Dente, it's an innocent and romantic little ditty that is sure to become a new favorite from season to season. To contrast, songs like "Winterskin" and the hynotic instrumental "Evergreen" capture the more pensive, lonesome snowy evening moments of the season. "Evergreen" even incorporates the sound of snow crunching beneath a pair of boots with a soft guitar, violin, and sleigh bells drifting overtop. Also included in the mix are updated renditions of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Drummer Boy" from the original 1995 EP, and the new treatments give the songs a more timeless appeal this time around. There are plenty more surprises on Christmas Songs as well, including "Gabriel's Message," a short interlude that captures a sort of Christmas Eve service benediction feel, the rousing original "Peace Is Here," and a string-laden, melancholic take on the Charlie Brown Christmas favorite "Christmastime Is Here."
New Christmas projects seldom sound quite this elaborate or vibrant, with the traditional covers revived in often brand new ways and originals simply having fun or beautifully reflective tones. After multiple listens, the initial wonder does not wane: Jars Of Clay's Christmas Songs may be the best modern Christmas album to come along in a long, long time.- PReview date: 8/19/07; Review date: 10/14/07, written by John DiBiase
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