Release Date: November 25th 2014
Reviewed by: Joshua Andre
- Cantus Sacrum Nocti / What Child Is This
- The Wassail Song
- Christmas Time Again
- Joy to the World
- This Day in Bethlehem
- Angels from the Realms of Glory
- Good King Wenceslas
- Merrily On High
- Sing We Now of Christmas
- It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
- Children Go Where I Send Thee
- Christmas Lullaby
- Auld Lang Syne
Having released a slew of albums in the late ‘90’s, Michael Johnston and his friends, who make up the pop/rock group Smalltown Poets, waited more than half a decade for a comeback studio album, as well as a Christmas holiday effort as well. Though some die-hard fans may conclude that the band’s earlier work cannot be topped, and that an extended hiatus for the band in this case hurt them and more than it gave them fresh perspective, creating dissonance and an outdated sound; for me I haven’t listened to the 5 piece band and their original material pre-2000, so I guess my analysis of the band is only depended on what I have listened to (their 2012 studio release), which reminds me of Jars of Clay musically and thematically. With Jars of Clay being a great band for Smalltown Poets to be compared to, this year they have unveiled their new Christmas album, titled Christmas Time Again, on the heels of their successful 2011 holiday effort. I know, I know, there have been tons of Christmas release this year (more than 10, I guarantee it, and all of them are quite inspiring, encouraging and motivational in my opinion), yet there is something about SP that seems to sound quite liberating and fresh. Including old classics, obscure carols and a few new original tunes, these 14 carols are sure to tug at your heart and move you into the Christmas spirit as we start December. Too early to start listening to Christmas music you day? I don’t think so! After all, can’t we all listen to Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving, according to Brandon Heath?
With an even split between well-known and not so familiar Christmas carols; Michael and co. attempt to put the fun back in Christmas with a bunch of tracks filled with celebration and joy. The weirdly fast and slow (in the chorus and the verses respectively) tempoed pop/punk electric guitar led “The Wassiall Song” is thematically similar to the melody “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” in that the band wish us a merry Christmas in the most ‘funnest’ way possible, with a myriad of instruments included against a backdrop of cheer and happiness. Similarly, “Merrily On High” brings with it connotations of joyfulness, and is similar to Rend Collective’s version musically, although played a bit slower and also including woodwind instruments in the chorus. While this version is only the first verse repeated 3 times, the fervent and emotional lyrics of ‘…gloria, hosanna in excelsis…’ is still as impacting and powerful and sure to bring us into the Christmas Spirit.
A glance through the rest of the tracklist brings some welcome surprises. The little known French carol “Patapan”, led by keys and vibrant flute, tells a story about French people celebrating Christmas and their traditions and rituals; and the one minute piano interlude of “Sing We Now Of Christmas”, sung with a choir of young children, is about us singing out from the top of our lungs because Jesus reigns. The piano only melody “Christmas Lullaby”, is an original written prayer of thanks and devotion to God as we sing a song of gratitude, as we reconcile the fact that Jesus came and saved us and wrestle that with our sinful nature; while the 2 minute album closer “Auld Lang Syne”, is a melody that is radically short as it is 2 minutes of pop/rock and instrumental goodness- with Michael singing in the last 20 seconds of the song (although I still do love Rend Collective’s version better!). It’s clear that Smalltown Poets are not content to sing the traditional carols and are ready to buck the trend both musically and vocally, as we are introduced to courageous and daring versions of known and lesser known melodies.
The God breathed, Holy Spirit anointed accapella version of “Children Go Where I Send Thee” (where Smalltown Poets channel their Avalon or Human Nature voices), is where Michael delivers a near flawless performance with God given lyrics such as ‘…he was born, born, born in Bethlehem, children go where I send thee…’; as I am reminded me of the Great Commission. This track (that I originally mistook as a song written by Mandisa in 2012) is one of my favourite songs recorded on this album by Smalltown Poets and reminds me that good Christmas or worship music doesn’t have to have instruments- God can speak and move just through voices!
The album opener “What Child Is This” starts off with an angelic ethereal haunting children’s choir against the backdrop of electronic drums, guitars and a building crescendo of epic proportions, as we dive into worshipping our King because of who He is! With the ending of the majestic track being a soft piano riff of the melody of the song, I am once again reminded of the power of the less-than-2 minute song.
From the electronic remix-y dance tradition worship anthem “Joy To The World” (finally, a carol that is more popular!), complete with an original added chorus that declares that we can ‘…sing the wonders of His love, sing the wonders of His joy…’, to the acoustic guitar led pop/CCM prominent well known carol “Angels From The Realms Of Glory”, that proclaims that we can ‘…come and worship, worship Christ the new born king…’ (with a different melody- and apparently the right melody- to Steven Curtis Chapman’s altered version, which I thought was the version that stayed true to the original!), we are met with a band that has a massive heart for Jesus, and wears their heart on their sleeve, witnessing for Jesus in every situation they are in.
Similarly the piano led “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”, where Michael sings eerily like Dan Haseltine, against the light percussion and acoustic guitar as well, is where he and the rest of the band also give glory to God, speaking vividly with imagery and metaphors about the moment Jesus arrived to earth as a baby, bringing us all hope and salvation in His name. The last traditional carol in this list is “Good King Wenceslas”, and is an odd choice and a song that I haven’t heard in a while, as there literally hasn’t been many covers of this melody. It’s another interesting track also though, as the band speak about the story of a king braving the winter weather to try to help and assist the lower and middle class (yes, I did search Wikipedia on this matter, as the old English was too much to bear!), and thematically reminds me of God’s great love for us, which stretches far beyond what we can ever imagine. But the album’s heart and main theme springs to life in the 2 original songs found in the first half of the album.
“This Day In Bethlehem” is driven by strong acoustic guitar and emphatic synth, and ardently and fervently recounts the proceedings of Jesus being born in the first verse, and later on the rest of the verses (there is no chorus) flesh out all the elements and moments of Jesus’ life, culminating in his death and resurrection, highlighting the fact that we have all been made new in the eyes of our saviour, and our redemption actually started when Jesus was born. Yet it is the piano led title track, where the band reminisce about the good times in Christmases gone by in their family traditions; that is one of the best original Christmas songs I have heard in a very long time. As Michael and his friends ask their families to ‘…save a place for me at the table around the tree, we’ll celebrate like family, it’s Christmas time again, and with every gift we bring, let us pray and let us sing, glory to the new born king, it’s Christmas time again…’, we are once again in awe of a very musically diverse and passionate group of friends who have ingeniously created a gem of a song that subtly talks about Jesus, yet also creates questions and topics to ponder for the non-Christian. Well done Smalltown Poets for a vibrant and musically different album full of tracks I love and tracks I will grow to love!
With Christmas Time Again being one of the most pleasant Christmas surprise full albums of the year so far (alongside holiday albums from Rend Collective and Michael W. Smith); Smalltown Poets have broken past their sophomore slump and onto their 3rd offering of music since their reunion. Though it’s a 2nd Christmas offering instead of a brand new album of all-original material, Michael Johnston and co. are continuing to make their presence felt within the pop/rock/CCM and also mainstream industry with these 14 melodies. While I probably would’ve expected this Christmas album to contain more traditional carols, like “O Holy Night”, “The First Noel” and “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day”, the album does serve as a great architect into Christmas worship in the upcoming weeks ahead. Fans of Jars of Clay, Crowder and All Sons And Daughters will love Smalltown Poets’ latest Christmas album, and everyone who listens are sure to be encouraged as they are reminded about Jesus’ birth! Well done guys for an inventive and musically refreshing and daring album.
4 songs to listen to: Christmas Time Again, Merrily On High, Children Go Where I Send Thee, Christmas Lullaby
RIYL: All Sons And Daughters, Crowder, Jars Of Clay, Phil Wickham, Downhere