12.16.2008

Noël, Josh Groban: Revisited

Posted by AJ Harbison at 11:34 pm

First of all, I must apologize (again) for my inconsistent posting of late. I’ve been quite busy over the past 5 days, but I would hate for you, my loyal readers, to feel neglected. So I will endeavor to do a better job in the coming weeks!

My last post, about Josh Groban‘s Christmas CD Noël, garnered five comments (with none from me)–the greatest number of comments I’ve ever gotten from readers, apart from the discussion generated by my first post on comprehensive listening. So, rather than replying to each of the five comments, I thought I’d write a dedicated post for that purpose.

Before I begin, let me say that perhaps I was a bit hasty and a bit harsh in my original judgment of the CD. I still stand by my principle that there’s not much that’s original or interesting in the arrangements, apart from “Little Drummer Boy,” although I’ve since gained a greater appreciation for “What Child Is This?” as well–it has a very appropriate quality of mystery and wonder about it that sets it apart from most of the other tracks. But upon further listening, I admit that the CD is not quite as cheesy as I made it out to be–sentimental, yes, but not (too) cheesy. And, as my lovely fiancée and at least one of my commenters pointed out, sentimentality is part of the whole point of Christmas music, so it can be forgiven perhaps more readily than in other genres.

So much for my preamble. On to the comments! The first one was from an anonymous poster:

The boy soprano on the “Little Drummer Boy” track is actually a girl! More specifically, David Foster’s daughter!

An honest mistake on my part, and one that I feel pretty foolish about. But, especially considering the boys’ choirs on a few other songs, I hope it’s a forgivable one–and come on, didn’t anyone else think it was a boy, without looking at the liner notes? N.B. David Foster is the musician who arranged and played piano on many of the tracks on the CD.

Another anonymous comment:

I always think it’s interesting that Josh’s voice still is trying to be forced into the classical category, when that’s not what he considers himself. While classicaly trained – which continues to this day – his love of music leads him in many directions….

The Christmas album was done at the urging of his fans who’ve wanted one for a few years now. It was fast – but turned out to be brutal to other artists in the record industry proving that Josh’s talent is not to be laughed at.

There are too many facets to this young man to hold him down to one genre, thank goodness. And still, he’s in his own lane.

It’s an interesting comment on our country’s musical culture to note that people try to force Groban’s voice into the classical category–perhaps we think that someone with such a great voice could not, would not or should not be performing in any other! His classical training is certainly evident in his singing, and I’m glad to hear that it continues. As I said in the last post, I would really like to hear him sing some great classical music, but at the same time whatever genre he doesn’t sing is another genre’s gain. It would be great to see him on a Broadway stage, assuming he can act as well. I’m not surprised that the album was done to placate his fans (it seems few popular artists escape a Christmas album these days), but I am glad it turned out better than most. I will check out the albums and YouTube video this commenter suggested (would you care to reveal your identity for this post, loyal reader?). And I agree that Groban is in his own lane.

The third comment was from Ryan Fleming, whom I can always count on for good insights:

I can see how a musician with a college degree in composition can find the arangement of most of Josh’s songs unoriginal or even cheesy; but while it may be unoriginal it still sounds good (in my opinion). I especially love the “inspirational” whole step key changes that you mentioned, especially when there is a break in the music right before hand. And I always find those sappy strings to be such a beautiful addition to any classical/pop music. I think these type of musical additions may be overused, but this is so because of the great impact it can have on a song. I do believe that they add a lot of power and feeling to a song.

As I am fond of saying, clichés are clichés for a reason–it’s because they’re so often true, or, in this case, because they so often work. As Fleming points out, these are all effective musical devices. However, these effective devices have become clichés precisely because they are overused. They do work, but they’ve been done so often that they lose some of their power and effectiveness. When I correctly sang along with the key change in “Little Drummer Boy,” it induced laughter rather than affected emotion because it was so predictable. I agree that they’re all legitimate musically, and that they sound all right; but with such a talent as Groban’s, I would have liked to see some more original arrangements–that is, arrangements that utilized skillful creativity, rather than resorting to hackneyed stuff that everybody does.

Darth_Harbison was the next reader to comment:

I don’t have enough musical knowledge to take issue with most of what you said, but I feel the need to jump to Groban’s defense because (while I don’t personally own any of his CDs) I greatly enjoy his music. I shall therefore refrain from taking issue with any of the musical issues and focus on the Christmas CD . . .

You criticize it as being “unoriginal” in “the most overdone genre of music in contemporary history.” This may be true, but I think that part of the charm of Christmas music is that it’s always pretty much the same. I love it as much as the next person when someone does something really new and creative without really changing anything (ala Mannheim Steamroller or Trans-Siberian Orchestra), but I think a lot of traditional Christmas music could be ruined in the name of “originality.” Of course, this might just be me, since as you know I’m big on tradition.

You also criticized it for sappy sentimentalism . . . And while generally I agree that it’s not a good thing (although I like “You Raise Me Up” a fair amount), I think that, again, it can be forgiven in Christmas music–in fact, I think it’s part of the point. There are, of course, some Christmas songs with enough actual depth that sappy sentimentalism seems almost irreverent (e.g. Joy to the World, perhaps the most brutalized-by-overuse song of all time), but I don’t think that indulging ourselves in enjoying sappy sentimentalism at Christmas is necessarily be a bad thing. The way I see it, as long as we keep in mind (for lack of a less cheesy phrase) the true meaning of Christmas, there’s really no harm in enjoying it as a secular holiday, as well.

And I’m happy that you think Little Drummer Boy is so good, because this CD basically made it one of my favorite Christmas songs.

My response here is basically the same as my response above–too much of a pretty good thing is not as good as just enough of a really good thing. (If that makes any sense…) I do agree that Christmas music can be ruined by originality. A case in point (at least for me) is the movement in recent years of arranging hymns, including Christmas hymns, in a light-jazz style with lots of unusual extended chords (seventh chords, ninth chords, eleventh chords, etc.)–which “O Come All Ye Faithful” on Noël falls into in places. That’s just annoying to me, and just because it’s original doesn’t make it good. However, I’m not advocating radical departures from tradition here. “Little Drummer Boy” is original a
nd creative without departing at all from the essence of the song. It’s just enough originality to spice up the song and set it apart from less worthy arrangements, while not going too far. Originality in moderation. And, as I said above, I suppose my view on its sentimentality is more lenient than in my original post.

And the final comment comes from a self-so-called lurker, Roberta:

OK. I feel the need to comment here even though I just usually just lurk.
I agree with both Darth and Ryan’s comments. Believe it or not, I own the CD. It was the third Christmas album I listened to this year, after Chanticleer and The Cambridge singers. I have to tell you that the reason I bought it is “The Voice.” I think sentimental can be overdone but this album has just the right amount that we expect from a Christmas recording. There are many others that are so sentimental they make me cry – and I don’t mean that in a good way! I have to admit, I always skip the track Josh sings with Faith Hill. That is simply painful for me to listen to. His voice, singing familiar songs makes this a must for my Christmas listening.

Again the sentimentality comes up–and again, I agree that Noël does strike a pretty good balance, upon further reflection. A CD like one by Mannheim Steamroller, as Darth mentioned above, perhaps avoids sentimentality altogether because its ideas are so different and fresh; and CDs that are nothing but sentimentality are so numerous that they need no example. But the present CD in question seems to fall comfortably (with its listeners and with itself) in the middle. And again, as Roberta points out, Groban’s voice is really the primary reason to listen to this CD. The arrangements may not be the best, the guest vocalists may be subpar, but ultimately the CD is carried by Groban’s talent. And that’s enough reason for one listen, at the very least.

So there you have it! Feel free to comment again if you’d like to respond to my responses–and I’d love for the anonymous commenters to reveal their identities, if they so choose. And keep the large numbers of comments a-comin’!

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    Anonymous on 12.17.2008

    I’m no music critic, just know what I like. And, yep, “the voice” took me to this Christmas cd. I grew up going to church – full-blown Christmas services, soaring choirs, even an orchestra brought in, so I’m a sap for the traditional. This cd has it in spades.

    The major kudo I can give it is for “Little Drummer Boy”. I have *never* liked that song and would be most happy for the kid to take drum and exit stage left. Anyone that can make LDB palatable has my vote. This version did just that. I’m also not a big Silent Night fan, but the opening sets a sweet, soft, quiet tone that I had never heard, and my reaction was unexpected. Take the Faith Hill number and toss it.

    Oh, yes, crescendos abound, but that is music embracing the season. If “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” doesn’t get you in the Christmas spirt, nothing will.

    Thanks for taking a second look, and your commentary.

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