The festive season is approaching, as in evidence by the incessant TV advertising and the shop displays of all the goodies that you might want or want to buy for others. As you wonder who you might throttle if you have to hear Slade and co from THAT Christmas compilation CD for another month, be of good cheer: this year you can ring the changes with the new Christmas offering from the Grammy Award-winning Blind Boys Of Alabama.
The album is jam packed with Christmas favourites, from carols like Silent Night and O Come All Ye Faithful, to the classics of The Christmas Song and White Christmas, with a few lesser known tracks such as Born In Bethleham thrown in for good measure.
That said, this is not the album for those who like their carols straight from Canterbury Cathedral, as the Blind Boys (the group was founded from members of the Alabama Institute For The Negro Blind in 1939) deliver the songs as powerful reworkings in a mixture of soul, blues and gospel. Away In A Manger, for example, evokes images of a smoky packed late night Blues bar, where people can dance and drink until dawn.
As well as having seven very good pairs of lungs between them, The Blind Boys have lined up special guest appearances on most of the tracks. So you get the Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy / Spearhead frontman, Michael Franti‘s Barry White-esque resonant growl on Little Drummer Boy, while Chrissie Hynde sings over Richard Thompson‘s sublime guitar on In The Bleak Midwinter.
Solomon Burke, Shelby Lynne and Me’shell Ndegeocello also lend their considerable talents. The harmonies throughout are imaginative and beautiful but those on the slowed down bluesy Go Tell It On The Mountain (Tom Waits guesting) deserve special mention.
The instrumentation rightly takes second place on many of the songs, given the assembled company, but as well as Thompson’s guitar, the double bass intro to I Pray On Christmas and counterpoint on Silent Night are particular highlights. The halting piano on O Come All Ye Faithful seems ill-advised, however, as it detracts from the simplicity of the voices.
From the pared down quiet numbers, like O Come and Joy To The World, you get thrown into tracks like Born In Bethlehem. This is a high tempo, funky song with lyrics on the “10 for the …, 9 for the …” theme from Partridge In A Pear Tree (though musically completely different) and ends up with the classic line, “And one for the little bitty baby / Born by the Virgin Mary.”
Overall, this album makes a refreshing change from the usual Christmas tunes, being one you can be proud to put on at a party. It provides real food for the soul that, unlike turkey, you can never over-indulge in.