You may have noticed Christmas CDs showing up at your favorite coffee shop, or bookstore (yes, some places still have those…) Me? I’ve been playing Christmas music since April. When I saw Michael W. Smith’s latest release, I ordered (no, not downloaded, I want the CD booklet with all the information), immediately. There are some really stunning orchestral arrangements combined with some dramatic studio magic on this, Smith’s fourth Christmas albums. Watch the teaser video of recording sessions.
Christmas CDs are a cash cow for most artists. They sing these songs like they are reading the Yellow Pages and still be able to get away scot free simply because these carols by themselves are already seasonal successes. Michael W. Smith avoids this completely. “The Spirit of Christmas” isn’t elevator muzak – this album is a story…a story worth listening to.
Smith put a lot of creativity and focus into this record, and the stars have shown up for this CD -all 9 of the renowned artists have had at least one #1 hit on the charts. From the country music world, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Nettles, Little Big Town, Lady Antebellum, Martina McBride and Vince Gill. We have Smith’s lifelong friend Amy Grant and from the pop/rock genre we have two legends, U2’s Bono and Doobie Brothers’ crooner Michael McDonald. My favorite guest artist is the London Symphony Orchestra who sounds spectacular on the entire disc.
This album isn’t like other Yuletide recordings where songs are just thrown together randomly. The sequencing of the songs I tell a story. The London Symphony starts us off with a childlike awe of the magical beauty of Christmas playing Smith’s composition of “The Miracle of Christmas”, followed by classic tunes “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”“Happy Holidays/Holiday Season”“Christmas Time Is Here”featuring Vince Gill sounding quasi angelic. “White Christmas”has Lady Antebellum joining MWS.
Smith’s granddaughter joins him and the Nashville Children’s Choir on “Somewhere In My Memory”. It is the poignant melody that most will remember from “Home Alone”the movie. It is breathtaking in its simplicity and emotion. The Symphony sets up the next section with “The Spirit of Christmas”a medley of carols; Deck the Halls, Good King Wenceslas, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Feels Like Christmas and, O Come All Ye Faithful. Brilliant programming here, it is impossible not to find a favorite among these chestnuts (had to do it…).
Little Big Town sings a traditional“Silent Night”, while Martina McBride joins Michael with an ethereal sounding“What Child Is This”. “Almost There” features Amy Grant starts with an almost medieval tone with its instrumentation and harmonies. These two sound the same as when they started singing together thirty years ago. Their harmonies blend so well its like they are the same person.
The most dramatic musical moments come in the last section of the album. Carrie Underwood’s rendition of Smith’s “All is Well,” is sensational. This CD s worth every penny for this song alone! I’m very familiar with “Christmas Day,” having performed it with the Edmonton Singing Christmas Tree in 2012. Here Jennifer Nettles almost overshadows Smith on this timeless MWS seasonal ballad.
I’m not sure what the vision was for “Darkest Night”, U2’s Bono delivers a breathy narrative on how evil and good clash on the day of Christ’s birth. It feels like this was a way to get a legend on the album with little effort. “Peace” is one of my favorite tunes on the disc. While Michael McDonald and Smith have such different tones, they come together to create a beautifully haunting version of this song.
Smith’s no stranger to Christmas music. With such a star-studded line up of guests, well-chosen songs, and the rich sounds provided by the London Symphony Orchestra, “The Spirit of Christmas” is his best Yuletide album to date.
Most musicians will admit to sharing a single core skill necessary for mastering their instrument: control. When it comes to designing spaces for practicing, performing, recording or just jamming, control is equally important to acousticians and architects. We aim to control the sound entering and exiting the studio, the heat and humidity inside and, of course, the acoustics.
While a home music room may not have the demands of a professional recording studio, many spaces can benefit from the sound isolation and acoustic treatment applied to rooms designed for playing music. I’ve designed spaces for music at all scales, from auditorium halls to private listening rooms, and have learned a few basic sound concepts that can dramatically improve the aural environment of any space.
September 11th, 2001. For many of us, this day is indelibly stamped in our memory. You likely know where you were at the moment you heard the news. Perhaps you can even feel the visceral emotions that hit you when you watched the footage of the horrific events of that day. For many, their lives are marked by before 9/11 and after 9/11.
It was a Tuesday and after I arrived home from a band rehearsal. Yes, we had a rehearsal. It may have been a sign of solidarity against the forces of evil; it may have been so as not to have to think about the atrocity of the day. Either way, I arrived home to watch the news as a Canadian with my Californian-born son. Things were going to be different, of that I was sure. I was concerned for his future, unsure of what would happen, a decision in my heart was made that day.
That weekend, my musical colleague and good friend Laurey and his daughter wrote a song that would eventually be the cornerstone of a work entitled “An American Requiem”. As a way to work though the angst that was brought by dark forces, a musical work was born. I had the privilege to play a part in the recording and presentation at the famed Benaroya Hall in Seattle on the first anniversary of September 11th. The emotion of that day was highlighted by the fact that less than two weeks earlier, I was sworn as an American citizen. The decision made a year to the day culminated in myself, as the music director leading a prayer on behalf of a hurting people.
For most of my life, music has been an outlet to my feelings and emotions. The healing that it brought during this particular chapter in our history is something exceptional. Working on and performing “An American Requiem” was both cathartic as well as patriotic. We will always remember those whose lives were cut short as well as the lives that were robbed of their loved ones.
Here’s a taste of what we recorded and performed on this anniversary 12 years ago today.
David Foster’s music director, Matt Dela Pola, told me about this new band David had discovered (He’s also the Executive Producer on the CD), Dirty Loops. I immediately went to listen, okay, watch and listen… on YouTube since everything Foster is up my alley. Well, these guys are not another Michael Bublé, or Josh Groban. Dirty Loops‘ debut album, Loopified, is on my iPod non-stop. The Swedish trio are most famous for their online covers of Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep“. I just got the trio’s own 12-song album, in a word – BRILLIANT!
The style is hard to pin down. The tracks list, when imported to my iTunes, says “Indie Rock”. The reality is, this is true fusion. Pop meets rock, meets funk, meets jazz fusion, meets incredible technique… you get my drift. I am hard pressed to articulate what the style should be labeled as.
Tight would be one way of describing their music. As a brass player, I am amazed at the phrasing Jonah plays on the keyboards. It’s not just the intervals, but the drop offs that sound so much like a brass section. You’ll know what I mean when you listen to “The Way She Walks” and “Roller Coaster”, it’s almost eerie.
“Hit Me”, does just that, the tune is a driving, funky groove with a quasi-boy band vibe. “Sexy Girls”, though the weakest song on the disc, lyrically, adds to the same formula- a little techno for good measure. “Sayonara Love” mixes R &B with virtuoso slap-bass that is just plain fun.
“Wake Me Up” is a more traditional pop sound until the band start changing the changes. The chord structure gets an almost Fusion Jazz treatment as the melody get lifted differently as the baseline takes creative license. “Die For You” starts out with heavenly vocals lulling the listener into a false sense of peace, the tune turns into a pounding stereo stressing test. If you have a convertible, this is a great top-down tune.
Just when you think you have this band pigeonholed, they hit you with “It Hurts” and poignant ballad about the pain felt when love ends. The melody could be on an Andrea Bocelli album, although these guys find a way to modernize this sound and make you want more. “Crash and Burn Delight” takes the listener on a similar journey of angst. Vocally, there’s a lot there, these guys are legit, and they surprise you with tone and subtlety.
“Take on the World” has an almost soundtrack feel and “Roller Coaster” an arrangement of the Justin Bieber song features synth brass, slap bass and astounding solos from all three members of the band. Making Bieber listenable speaks to their creativity for sure!
“Accidentally in Love” could have been a Stevie Wonder song with its mix of gospel and Motown.
Where there the band is on the cusp of overplaying in the flat-out sections, they are deft at leaving space when needed. With Dirty Loops, each player is a virtuoso in their own right. Together they have created something that is really special.
I’m looking forward to seeing and listening to the band play in Seattle this November. If the energy is even close to what’s on the CD, I’ll be spent by the end of their show. If you want a “high-energy”, “get you going” disc, this will blow you away!
Free your music from tyranny of wires with the PUC, a Wireless MIDI Connection. Designed specifically for iOS devices, the PUC allows you to wirelessly connect any MIDI device such as keyboards, synths, dj controllers, drum machines, floor pedal controllers, plus other gear, wirelessly to your iPad, iPhone or Mac, and easily control your music making apps. It has a low latency system as fast or faster than the wire, and includes the free PUC connector app.
It’s hard to find a person who likes no music at all, though tastes differ drastically, yet it’s the people playing that music who are getting the real buzz according to this animated TED-Ed talk from Anita Collins.