Black River Christian Entertainment
Release Date: October 19th 2018
Reviewed by: Jonathan Andre
- Winter Wonderland
- Christmas Eve in Bethlehem
- O Come All Ye Faithful
- The First Noel
- O Come, O Come Emmanuel
- Breath of Heaven
- Silent Night
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
- White Christmas
Yes I know it is October, and yes I know that Christmas Eve is around 2 months away. Yet it seems like as the years go by, we start to celebrate the Christmas season earlier and earlier…the Christmas music starts to come out, the decorations, even the shopping centres start to bring the stores into the Christmas Spirit around this time. And though there’s nothing wrong with Christmas per se, it seems like Christmas music seems to be more by and by, as every artist you ever think of would’ve released a Christmas album sometime during their career thus far. Therefore, it almost seems like a mute point where you see an album with yet another version of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, ‘Silent Night’, ‘The First Noel’, ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’, all the songs you know from childhood, covered again in yet another arrangement…it almost seems like whenever there is another Christmas album released by any artist, there’s always a hesitation to dive right in, only on the basis that many Christmas arrangements, no matter what genre the arrangement is undertaken in, is almost virtually the same, regardless of the artist singing it. Yet, here comes in another new-ish artist, Hannah Kerr, who has made waves with her debut album Overflow that released in 2016. Though that album released without much buzz or even promotion (I didn’t even know Hannah was releasing a full length album until she did), Hannah’s album full of sincere moments of reflection and encouragement set me on an assertion that I still hold today- what Hannah has that can be set apart compared to other up-and-coming artists is emotion and passion far beyond her years. Only in her early 20s, Hannah comes across with a sense of grounded maturity, as songs on not only Radiate but also this new Christmas album (full of originally written songs and carols as well) bring about a moment of us being transported into a place of utter worship and devotion, realising the very weight of the Christmas season, and what these Christmas songs entail, and what it means to sing them time and time again over the years.
Though much of this 10 track album is in fact Christmas carols, Hannah’s arrangement of them keeps the carol alive in a unique, fresh, up-to-date and relevant way, while also placing her own genre-spin on the album as a whole (much of the album has a jazz 1970s New Orleans atmosphere, while also colliding it with a 2018 contemporary setting as well- with drums, guitars and a powerful vocal, backing the jazz-like piano and horn instruments in the backdrop). While at times I reckon it could be a little too early to see a Christmas offering within a new artist’s music release catalogue, what Hannah nevertheless brings within these 10 songs for the holiday season, is that of hope, peace, and comfort. Throw in a few originally written Christmas songs that sound very much like modern day Christmas hymns, and what can possibly go wrong? Hannah may have a while yet until album #2 releases (with the success of songs like ‘Radiate’ and ‘Warrior’ from her first album release), which is ok. Her Christmas album is enough for us to be tied over, expecting great things from this young woman of God. Perhaps one of my favourite female vocalists in recent years, maybe, just maybe, Hannah could follow in the footsteps and become either the next Meredith Andrews or Francesca Battistelli in the future?
Comprising of 10 songs (6 of which have been re-released- they were on her Christmas EP released in 2017), Hannah’s collection of Christmas melodies is seemingly divided- 3 holiday-themed Christmas songs (White Christmas, Winter Wonderland, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas), 4 Christ-centred Christmas songs (The First Noel, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful), 1 cover (Breath of Heaven- originally by Amy Grant) and 2 originally written songs (Emmanuel, Christmas Eve in Bethlehem); as we are enthralled and awed at the calibre of her vocals and the passion and enthusiasm that comes through on each track. Starting with a song that is as familiar as it is fun, ‘Winter Wonderland’ may only be applicable and relatable for anyone who does live in the Northern Hemisphere, but even I find myself enjoying a song like this. While not about Jesus’ birth at all, the song is about the whole Christmas experience, and ‘pretending’ like we’re in a winter wonderland, imagining the moments as it could be from a winter holiday movie, or from out of a cartoon/TV show. It is only if you are in the Northern Hemisphere that you can relate with wanting to experience a ‘winter wonderland’ during Christmastime, yet for anyone else, it gives us motivation, I hope, to at least want to experience Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere…at least once. Similarly, with ‘White Christmas’, the last track on the album, Hannah brings to us a message that, while not about Jesus as well, is nevertheless timely and appropriate in such a divided and polarising culture. A song about longing to enjoy a Christmas in the snow, to be surrounded by friends and family and to experience a moment where everything is right (featuring a double bass, light acoustics and a heavy piano presence a la the 1950s or 1960s era of Christmas music), Hannah harkens back to when Christmas songs were more focused on the moment of delivery and the message behind the songs, rather than the arrangements today where sadly, it’s much more about theatrics more than anything else.
‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ is the remaining holiday-themed carol covered by Hannah on this album and is heavily jazz-influenced. Standing at near to 5 minutes, this melody features a heavy piano undertone alongside light string instruments to create a 1960s café-style Christmas music atmosphere. As Hannah states herself about the background of the composition of this track, ‘…I asked a bunch of fans on my Facebook page to vote for which Christmas song I should cover, and this was the winner! I decided to add a jazz flare to show a little more of my musical passions…’ While this song in and of itself has been covered a million times, from artists like Joy Williams, Jaci Velasquez, Bebo Norman and Jadon Lavik, to Francesca Battistelli, JJ Heller, Sidewalk Prophets and Matthew West; this new interpretation by Hannah Kerr continues to make me enjoy this particular carol all the more, as this song, while it doesn’t really speak about the Lord’s birth, does nevertheless remind us all to have a great Christmas each year, to think upon the things that matter, and to appreciate our loved ones, even during the chaotic moments of Christmas-time!
“Breath of Heaven” was originally written and recorded by Amy Grant from her Christmas album in the early 1990s (and subsequently covered by artists like Jessica Simpson and Kutless for their respective Christmas albums in later years), and now here we are in 2018, with Hannah once again covering this famous song. And while I myself only heard Amy’s original recording only after I heard this one when it was indeed recorded and on her Christmas EP in 2017, Hannah nevertheless delivers a near-flawless rendition of a song that will certainly stand the test of the time as the years continue to roll on. As the song is presented from the viewpoint of Mary the mother of Jesus, ‘Breath of Heaven’ is an honest portrayal of how Jesus’ mother was feeling during the moments surrounding his birth- alone, scared, hopeful, excited, and everything else a mother would feel. We are given a glimpse into the mind and thoughts of Mary through this track, so much so that I initially thought this song was an original written by Hannah before I did some investigation- that’s how passionately Hannah sings! Co-written with Andy Gullahorn and Jill Phillips, the title track allows us to sing a new song unto the Lord, declaring that He is indeed our Emmanuel, even though the people at the Inn rejected Him and He was thus born in a stable surrounded by animals, while it is ‘Christmas Eve in Bethlehem’, co-written with songwriter Jason Earley, that is my very own personal favourite out of the original songs on this album. A modern hymn of sorts (can you have a modern hymn whose theme is Christmas?), we are presented with a conundrum of sorts- what if we were the innkeeper, the wise men or the shepherds on Christmas Eve- how would we respond to Jesus the Saviour? How would we react, not knowing the Christmas story as we do right now in present day? The song delves into such questions like that, and really gets to the heart of why we believe what we do about Christmas and the themes surrounding the holiday. A song that will be on repeat on my iTunes Christmas playlist for months to come, this is a track certain to challenge and encourage whomever hears it!
Then there’s the Christ-centred Christmas carols- ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ that was originally on the EP released last year, and the other three (The First Noel, O Come All Ye Faithful, Silent Night) that are recorded for this 10 song Christmas album. ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ is quickened to a pace that seems to be unrecognisable when the song starts. Nevertheless, the quickened pace of the song doesn’t deter from the passion that Hannah brings, as we are met with the fervent and urgent words of how we are to ‘…rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel, has come for thee, o Israel…’ ‘The First Noel’ brings the pace down quite a lot as this 3:25 length track features Hannah’s distinct vocal and a piano, on a song that, naturally subdued musically, becomes even more so…which can be good if you are in a reflective mood, but never for a rousing declaration during the Christmas season. Nevertheless, Hannah’s rendition is as passionate as it is emotive, and is very much appreciated if you need a song to calm and soothe you before bedtime as the months continue to roll on before Christmastime. ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ continues to have a jazz atmosphere as Hannah brings the piano again to the forefront, as one of my favourite Christmas carols, ever, is again given a reflective treatment. There’s nothing wrong with that, its just that Hannah is playing into a musical genre that isn’t necessarily known or even fully appreciated within a CCM industry that is heavily focused on pop-radio formats of songs. Still, what a bold decision for Hannah to make, creating carols that have a jazz edge, that remind us that the musical arrangements of yesteryear can still have a positive impact on Christmas carols today. ‘Silent Night’, featuring the acoustic guitar, is quite possibly the most subdued Christmas song, ever. For Hannah to treat the carol with much respect and dignity, never straying from how the original arrangement was, is a testament to her maturity and character, as this track continues to become a song that I have reflected upon in recent years as the Christmas season progresses each and every year.
Hannah’s introduction into CCM in 2016 with Overflow was nothing short of poignant and heartfelt. Her follow-up Christmas album Christmas Eve in Bethlehem (as well as her Christmas EP Emmanuel) continues to be as heartfelt, maybe even more so. Sure, she may be a carbon copy of Casting Crowns in quite possibly every way, yet it is her fervent enthusiasm to present to us songs that make us think in terms of a kingdom mentality that I’m sure will propel her to new heights in months to come. From carols like ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ and ‘White Christmas’ to standout original track ‘Christmas Eve in Bethlehem’, this is a must for any Casting Crowns fan, or if you love artists like Lindsay McCaul, Bethany Dillon or Kari Jobe. Well done Hannah for such an encouraging and compelling Christmas album. Already looking forward to the next one, whenever it arises.
3 songs to listen to: Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, Breath of Heaven, Emmanuel
RIYL: Meredith Andrews, Rebecca St. James, Kari Jobe, Laura Story, Lindsay McCaul