12.12.2008

Noël, Josh Groban

Posted by AJ Harbison at 2:10 am

My lovely fiancée’s landlady graciously got me a Christmas gift last week, which Eleanor gave to me in her stead. Apparently not knowing too much about my tastes in music, she had purchased Josh Groban‘s Christmas album Noël. But, I cheerfully accepted the gift and thought I’d give it a listen to give myself a broader understanding of Groban’s music.

I’ve certainly heard Groban sing before, and I have to say that he has, hands down, one of the best voices I’ve ever heard. I don’t know much (anything, really) about his history or training, but his voice is exquisite and perfectly balanced, equally at home in soft, crooning lows or powerful highs. His vibrato in particular is nicely controlled and understated, and never overwhelms his tone or pitch, which is one of my primary complaints about opera and similar styles of music. He is 27 as of this writing, which means that his voice has pretty much fully settled (it happens in men around 25) and is only going to mature from this point on. I’m not sure what his future aspirations are (although his Wikipedia page suggests he’s interested in pursuing musical theatre), but he certainly has the foundation to become a truly great singer.

That being said, however, I haven’t been a big fan of his music up to this point. His most popular song, a cover of “You Raise Me Up,” is a pretty sappy song with little real content (perhaps the “Wind Beneath My Wings” of this generation). And the arrangements that he sings tend to be cast from the same mold: cheesy, overly sentimental, scored with sappy strings and plenty of dramatic cymbal rolls and “inspirational” key changes up a whole step.

Noël, mostly, is the same. Of the 13 tracks on the album, ten are Christmas carols or traditional “religious”-type songs and three are secular Christmas songs (“I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “The Christmas Song” [that’s the “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” one] and “Thankful”). Sentimentality and sappiness are present in large doses, and hardly any of the arrangements present original or even really interesting takes on perhaps the most overdone genre of songs in contemporary history.

The only thing that makes the CD worth listening to, in most cases, is Groban’s voice. I should clarify that I don’t say that because the arrangements are bad music per se; it’s just that (as I said) in such an overdone genre, an arrangement with nothing original or interesting to offer is not really worth one’s time. But Groban’s voice makes even the sappiest arrangement tolerable, at the least. It seems like a pretty poor choice (although an inevitable one) to pair him with other singers, as on “Angels We Have Heard On High” and “The First Noel,” because he shows them up so clearly. The latter, which is a duet with Faith Hill, displays this even more so than the former: Faith Hill is by no means a bad singer, but her vocal idioms and constant embellishment seem vulgar next to Groban’s clear and modest style.

There are a few exceptions to the CD’s rule, however–interesting moments here and there that are worth a listen. The boys’ choir that appears on “Silent Night” and “Ave Maria” is excellent and adds a nice shimmering touch. I appreciate the inclusion of two songs in Latin (“Ave Maria” and “Panis Angelicus”) and one in French (“Petit Papa Noël”). And there is one song that clearly stands out from the rest in originality and quality.

“Little Drummer Boy” is far and away the best cut on the record, and the most original in its arrangement. The CD mentions that it features guitarist Andy McKee, and it’s his guitar work that makes the track stand out. I also enjoy the boy soprano on the second verse who sings an echo to Groban’s melody, although I wish he was utilized more–it would have been nice to hear him singing simultaneous harmony as well, or hear his role develop through the song rather than just use him on the one verse. There is also a predictable key change in the middle of the song, which I actually anticipated and correctly sang along with the first time I heard it. But other than those two minor nitpicks, it’s a very good version of a good song.

Overall? Noël is maybe worth a listen or two if you don’t yet have an appreciation for Josh Groban’s voice. Christmas music as a genre has very positive connotations for me, as my mother would start to cycle through her various Christmas CDs after Thanksgiving to herald the Advent season. My first time listening through Noël made me happy because it was the first Christmas CD I’d listened to this year, and it did the trick of getting me in the “holiday spirit.” “Little Drummer Boy” is a track worth listening to, on its own. And as for Groban? I personally wish that I could hear him tackle some really great music–I’d like to know how he’d handle, say, a Handel aria or a Schubert art song. None of the music on this CD is difficult to sing, by any means, and it makes me wonder if his voice is really versatile or if he just sings this type of music really well. We shall see. But for now, a couple of tracks from Noël will make it into my own Christmas rotation. Let me know if any make it into yours!

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  1. Gravatar

    Anonymous on 12.12.2008

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

  2. Gravatar

    Anonymous on 12.12.2008

    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.

    His fans have always joked about his being able to sing the phone book and make it sound amazing. I think he proves that everytime he sings at a charitable event with some other artist, to his Emmy performance – highlight of the show – to his “Life Is A Masquerage” on Ben Folds’ new album, and beyond.

    You might want to check out his duets with Placido Domingo and Charles Azvanour, the French artist, who have both just released new albums.

    And when they let him loose across the pond he just shines. Here’s a clip from Never Mind the Buzzcock’s, a somewhat irreverant show making fun of pop music – he was a guest a couple of days ago.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3blK5laPQ8

    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.

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    ryan fleming on 12.12.2008

    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.

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    Darth_Harbison on 12.12.2008

    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.

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    Roberta on 12.13.2008

    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.

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