Release Date: November 11th 2016
Reviewed by: Joshua Andre
- Winter Wonderland
- Christmas Is Here
- White Christmas
- Unto Us
- I’ll Be Home for Christmas
- Oh, to See Christmas
- Count Your Blessings
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
- Let It Snow
- O Little Town of Bethlehem
- O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
- Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring
- Silent Night
“…When Christmas comes around each year and I hear the jazzy sounds of The Vince Guaraldi Trio playing “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” or Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas,” I’m somehow transported to another place. I hear just a few notes of these familiar tunes, and somehow I’m six again opening stockings with my family, or driving around my neighborhood looking at Christmas lights. This music; these memories fill me with nostalgia. These are the feelings I wanted to capture when I set out to make my own Christmas album, “Unto Us”…” JJ Heller (short for Jennifer Judy), is in my opinion possibly one of the most unique, musically diverse and poignant female indie artists I have heard the last few years. After her successful 2013 album Loved and her lullaby album I Dream of You in 2014, JJ set out to release the critically acclaimed new album Sound Of A Living Heart in 2015, featuring hit songs such as “Let Down Your Guard”, “Fully Known” and “The Well” to name a few. Famous for songs throughout her career like “Control”, “Who You Are”, “Boat Song” and “What Love Really Means”; JJ has stepped out of her comfort zone once again, presenting us with a well-crafted and thought out Christmas album Unto Us.
With the beautifully produced and intricately designed melodies ranging from familiar worshipful carols, mainstream holiday themed songs and original tracks; there is definitely something on this 13 track unique musical and lyrical seasonal experience, as we worship God and remember Him coming to Earth in a manger all those years ago! Recording these inspiring and motivational Christmas melodies in her own unique acoustic pop genre that we all have come to know and love; JJ’s vibrant and eclectic project is one of the most inspiring Christmas albums I’ve heard over the past few years, as JJ is able to craft 13 songs full of life and vitality. With Unto Us being a more than welcome addition to my iTunes playlist, this serene and reflective Christmas album, produced by Ben Shive, is indeed a perfect album to listen to if you have been a fan of JJ’s previous material, or if you enjoy artists like Audrey Assad, Amy Grant, Sara Groves or Brooke Fraser.
With 6 of the 13 melodies on Unto Us being ‘mainstream’ themed holiday tracks, I reckon it’s one of the most highest percentage-wise of ‘mainstream carols’ to total Christmas songs in any particular Christian Christmas album, however JJ skilfully records each melody with aplomb, immense passion and overall exuberance that the absence of Jesus in these tracks doesn’t really detract from the overall message of family and just the sheer notion of happiness and joy that JJ evidently displays. With most tracks driven by the piano, “Winter Wonderland” is a 2 minute soft and eerily played lament and longing to be present in the northern hemisphere for experiencing a ‘winter’ wonderland during Christmastime; while the light percussion and vibrant acoustic guitar leads “White Christmas” thematically similar in that JJ longs for a ‘…white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know, where the treetops glisten, and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow…’; and the piano only tongue in cheek “Count Your Blessings”, from the film White Christmas in 1954, is also featured, as JJ reminds us that we ought to cherish each moment as we do not know what the future holds.
“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” tells the emotional and personal keys prominent story of the persona wanting to be home for Christmas during the holidays, but maybe other commitments and works issues making things a tad more difficult (hence the assertion of ‘…I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams…’), while “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is probably one of the most overplayed Christmas songs ever, though JJ’s simply played yet nevertheless effective and compelling version, sometimes lullaby-ish, is well worth the listen as we are treated to a melody that wishes us a merry Christmas. While “Let It Snow” is essentially a romantic relationship type of song, with JJ singing to her husband, relaying that ‘…as long as you love me so, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…’.
The remainder of the track list is an even mixture of original melodies and worshipful carols. “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” is once again led by the piano, with JJ emphatically highlighting the notion of Jesus being born in Bethlehem, that the town should be proud of such a special day where the Saviour of the world was born in such a much needed time, and JJ also fervently recounting and asking in an all-new bridge ‘…oh Bethlehem, how can you sleep? A time has come that’s wilder than your dreams, awaken your forsaken hope and look upon your king, a baby born to set you free…’; while “O Come O Come Emmanuel”, an inspiring somewhat less popular carol, is sung as an acapella later moving into a light piano and organ led reflective and contemplative piece, complete with a chilling children’s choir in the chorus to add depth. The 1 minute children’s choir led “Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring” is a melody that JJ doesn’t feature in at all, as we are met with a haunting and mysterious worship song to Jesus, the One whom we all should desire with all of our hearts; while the album ender is “Silent Night”, which doesn’t really change from the original version, as we are met with an honest, heartfelt prayer to God, as we sing about how ‘…glories stream from Heaven afar, heavenly hosts sing halleluia, Christ the savior is born…’.
Time and time again, an artist wows me, with original Christmas songs, such as “Unto Us” and “The Heart Of Christmas” (Matthew West), “Hallelujah Light Has Come” (BarlowGirl), “Christ Has Come” (Big Daddy Weave), “Heaven Everywhere” (Francesca Battistelli), All Is Well (“Michael W. Smith”) and “Christmas Card” (Steven Curtis Chapman); and the 3 originals from JJ are no different. JJ has definitely outdone herself, with these inspiring, worshipful Christ centred original holiday melodies being some of my favourites of the year thus far! Led by driving electric guitars and vibrant synth, the radio friendly worshipful “Christmas Is Here” is sure to fit right in on K-Love or Air 1 during their Christmas songs playlists, as JJ emphatically declares to God ‘…let us adore Him, lift up your voices, sing it out loud, sing it out clear, Christmas is here…’, as we remember the importance of this significant day, the day that Jesus was born; while the somewhat simple yet effective title track highlights the fact that ‘…unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given…and He shall be called Emmanuel…’. JJ then brings out the hand claps and light acoustic guitar in the happy-go-lucky and jovial “Oh To See Christmas”, as we are glimpsed a viewpoint of Christmas through the eyes of a little child, and what they may be going through when experiencing such a big holiday (in their opinion).
“…When it came time to listen to the final versions of the songs, I confess the music brought me to tears at several different moments. I spent nearly a year making Unto Us, and the thought of people finally experiencing it made me giddy with anticipation. As I imagined listeners hearing these songs for the first time, I was overwhelmed with emotion. This Christmas gift is sitting under the tree and is finally ready to be unwrapped! As you gather around your tree with your loved ones to celebrate the birth of Christ this year, I hope this music creates a backdrop for you to express the love and joy that comes with the season. From my heart to yours, I wish you a very merry Christmas…” As JJ reminds us through these 13 inspiring melodies what it means to be alive, to have our hearts beating, and to worship Jesus, who came to earth as a baby in a manger; this is a Christmas album not to be missed by anyone- it doesn’t matter what genre you enjoy; JJ Heller’s sheer honesty and realness is sure to inspire no matter your favourite Christmas carol, or even if you love the holiday at all! One of my favourite Christmas albums this year alongside albums from Matt Redman (These Christmas Lights), Matthew West (Unto Us) and Newsong (The Best Christmas Ever); well done JJ for a well written and recorded album! Can’t wait for your next studio project!
4 songs to listen to: Christmas Is Here, Oh To See Christmas, O Little Town Of Bethlehem, Silent Night
RIYL: Audrey Assad, Sara Groves, Brooke Fraser, Amy Grant, Bethany Dillon, Joy Williams