For most people, September is a little too early to start pulling out the Christmas music, but as summer slips into the early days of fall, it doesn't take long for holiday anticipation to start. Centricity Music is leading the way into the Christmas season with an early present, Bethlehem Skyline Vol. 2. Following the success of the original 2007 project and tour, this compilation of originals and classics showcases eight Centricity artists in a collection of Christmas songs old and new.
The most notable quality of this independent label's roster is its diversity. From upbeat pop-rock and country to lyrical folk and rock worship anthems, Centricity artists span a range of genres rather than focus on one niche. And yet, through the many different styles, Bethlehem Skyline 2 is a cohesive project. While it's not too common to find youth-oriented pop-punk and acoustic singer-songwriter ballads on the same album, the diverse lineup works well to keep the music flowing and changing.
Most of the artists contribute two songs, a classic and an original. The classics represented are well-known standards like "Do You Hear What I Hear," "Silent Night," and "Away in a Manger," and are handled in a mostly traditional fashion while holding to each musician's style. Some highlights among these are the somber "Silent Night" by Downhere, Jason Gray's upbeat pop take on "Do You Hear What I Hear," and a lovely arrangement of "Carol of the Bells" by Lanae' Hale. High Valley brings some earthy country for "Away in a Manger" right in the middle, introducing a different texture to the mix. And though the Hawk Nelson-ish pop-punk of Me in Motion is far different from anything else here, the fun of their catchy singalong version of Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" is undeniable.
The originals, however, really show off the talent of this group. Jason Gray's beautiful ballad "Love Has a Name" weaves imagery of a world in waiting through sparkling instrumentation, a lilting melody, and poetic, hymn-like verses. Bridging the sacred and secular aspects of Christmas where "churches and shopping malls join in the strains," this song evokes the mystery and wonder of "the child who can make us all children again" and captures the heart of the season. On the other, fun-loving side is Lanae' Hale's surprising dose of humor in "Starving Artist Christmas." Determined to "clear the misconception that musicians have money," her slightly sarcastic but fun musings are sure to bring a smile to anyone who's dealt with the holidays on a budget. (After all, "It's been a hard year, the economy's weird.") And then there's Andrew Peterson's "Long Long Ago," an elegant acoustic piece that stands out in its poetic simplicity. Wrapped in the image of Bethlehem where "Wind in the olive trees softly did blow," this lyrical song tucked toward the end of the playlist is a quiet little gem that re-centers the heart of the music.
There are no big problem tracks, though some of the styles didn't click too much with this listener. Sixteen Cities tends to blend in, and Matt Papa's Lincoln Brewster style rock worship seems odd paired with "Little Drummer Boy." And though a catchy opening track, the lyrics of "Give it Away" don't quite measure up to the standards set by other songs, relying instead on the stressed shopper images that run wild in Christmas music. Still, there may actually be something for everyone in this mix, and the fact that none of the songs slip into sentimentalism or over-dramatic ballads is a huge plus. There's a line between reverence and fun, and this album strikes that balance well.
With such an early release, it would be easy to let Bethlehem Skyline Vol. 2 slip by, but lovers of Christmas music or fans of any of the Centricity artists won't want to miss out on this one. This solid compilation serves up a holiday playlist that doesn't compromise style or feel forced, and it also works as a great introduction to Centricity's talented lineup.- Review date: 9/28/10, written by Jen Rose of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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