Prime Cuts: All is Well (with Carrie Underwood), Christmas Day (with Jennifer Nettles), Almost There (with Amy Grant)
It's hard to be write a captious review on a Christmas album. With evergreen carols like "What Child is This," "Silent Night" and "White Christmas" they have such timeless melodies that even a child could hum them if he or she has been in the shopping mall long enough over the festive season. What right then do we have to say anything pernicious about these Yuletide staples? As a result, many artist can sing these songs like they are reading the telephone directory and still be able to get away scorch free simply because these carols by themselves are already designated winners. This is the temptation Michael W. Smith is trying to avoid. He doesn't want "The Spirit of Christmas" to simply be designated elevator muzak played over malls just to create the Christmas-y mood for shoppers. Rather, he wants this album to mean something and to be one that is talked about in years to come.
Towards such a lofty end, Smith has put in a ton more effort than most of his other outings. For starters, Smith wants this to be a red-carpeted affair. Save for his own daughter Audrey Smith, this CD boasts 9 distinguished artists all of whom have had at least one #1 hit on the charts of the various musical genres. From the country music fold, we have Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Nettles, Little Big Town, Lady Antebellum, Martina McBride and Vince Gill. From the Christian front we have Smith's long time pal and collaborator Amy Grant and from the pop/rock genre we have U2's Bono and AC crooner Michael McDonald. As if that was not enough, Smith has gotten the London Symphony Orchestra to provide the backings.
Unlike other Yuletide recordings where songs are just thrown together in an ad hoc fashion, the sequencing of the songs here tell a story. Commencing with a childlike awe of the magical beauty of Christmas the album progressively traverses into the season's real meaning. Of the earlier segment of the record, Smith's duet with Vince Gill on "Christmas Time is Here" is noteworthy. Sounding a little deeper than his normal high tenor, Vince Gill joins Smith on a languid laid back jazzy rendition of "Christmas Time is Here." Though Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum is in tip top condition vocally on "White Christmas," there is nothing much to shout about with regards to the song's arrangement. And Martina McBride sounds literally bored in a pretty pedantic version of "What Child is This."
The jaw dropping moments come towards the tail end of the album. Numerous standing ovations need to be given to Carrie Underwood for letting loose of herself on lots of long holding notes on Smith and Wayne Kirkpatrick's co-write "All is Well," a song Smith first recorded in 1989 for his debut Christmas record. Also, unearthed from the archives is "Christmas Day," a song Smith recorded with Mandisa on his 2007's "It's a Wonderful Christmas" album. Here Jennifer Nettles is in her glowing prime as she overshadows Smith on this well-descriptive seasonal ballad. Sounding like it's a narrated piece made for a sci-fi movie, U2's Bono offers a breathy take of how evil and good clash on the fateful day of Christ's birth. While Michael McDonald and Smith celebrate the effects of Christ's birth on Beth Nielsen Chapman's "Peace."
Smith's no stranger to Christmas music. Discounting compilations, he has had made four Christmas albums so far. Other than Amy Grant, Smith must be one of the most prodigious when it comes to Christmas music. With such a star-studded line up of guests, the (mostly) well-chosen songs, and the lush sounds provided by the London Symphony Orchestra, "The Spirit of Christmas" is his best Yuletide album to date.
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