For years, Sixpence None the Richer (as well as Leigh Nash on her own) have been contributing a Christmas tune here and there on others' holiday compilations. Leigh's voice and Matt Slocum's instrumentation on these past Christmas albums have consistently made their songs the most interesting tracks on each compilation (and sometimes the best). At last this year, they've given fans what they've been asking for - a full-length Christmas album. It's titled The Dawn of Grace.
The record kicks off with a gentle, CCM friendly version of "Angels We Have Heard on High," featuring some of the lesser-sung verses of this classic carol. The tame drums and (possibly synthesized?) strings make this feel like a blah track from a Leigh Nash album, but Slocum's layered melodies start to inject some magic as the final verse begins.
Track two, an original called "The Last Christmas," continues the layered guitars, this time including an ebow effect on the lead. The lyric was written, as Slocum explains on his MySpace blog, as he and his wife were preparing for the birth of their first daughter and reflecting that Mary and Joseph had once experienced similar feelings of ending and beginning. The lyric is beautiful and the music moves it along unobtrusively.
"O Come O Come Emmanuel" is an acoustic-driven, rhythmic version of the carol - and the first song on the album that actually feels like a Christmas song. Subtle sleigh bells, dreamy guitar effects, and Leigh's characteristic ethereal background vocals begin to set that glowing, garland-draped mood that's expected of a holiday album.
Wonderfully, the mood is continued throughout the next three tracks. "Silent Night" (with Dan Haseltine of Jars of Clay) is full of slidy guitar riffs and the vocal combination of Nash and Haseltine that is always pleasing. "Riu Riu Chiu," a Spanish carol presenting a culturally different perspective on the Christmas story, has a beautifully catchy melody (yo no hablo Espanol and still it's stuck in my head) and gorgeous layered strings balancing the smoothly picked guitar.
On "Carol of the Bells," Nash sings alternately in unison and harmony with herself over shifting currents of guitar, strings, bells and drums, offering a fresh, interesting take on this familiar song. Sixpence fans, here is the song you've been waiting for, by the band you remember. If you're riding that high, it's best to skip over "Christmas Island." It's cute, it's twangy, it's coconut-and-straw-hat flavored. Is that a harmonica? Why am I afraid this might be the single?
A cover of Joni Mitchell's "River" follows that is unusual and appropriate and thoughtfully executed. (Read Nash's MySpace blog and you'll understand just how poignant this selection is.) "I'm so hard to handle/I'm selfish and I'm sad/and now I've gone and lost the best baby that I ever had/And I wish I had a river I could skate away on…" Who better to bring a touch of melancholy to this festive season than Nash and Slocum?
"Christmas for Two," another original, is a sweet love song with a lilting melody and gently singing guitar throughout. It's simple and straightforward and just what a Christmas love song should be. "Some Children See Him," the final track, unfortunately doesn't tie a neat bow on this package. It sounds like an afterthought and is not as polished as the rest of the record.
Overall, however, The Dawn of Grace is an enjoyable album, full of Slocum-smooth guitars and silky Nash vocals. It's certainly a great Christmas-party-background album (minus track seven, for me anyway), with several standout tracks for your special play list.- Review date: 10/10/08, written by Miriam DiBiase for Jesusfreakhideout.com
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