"Life In Technicolor," Viva La Vida, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:00 am

In my car this past week I’ve been listening again to Viva La Vida, and it never fails to be awesome. I’ve been impressed recently with “Life In Technicolor,” the first track. It’s instrumental, so there are no lyrics and only a brief appearance by the vocals. But it’s an example of perfectly crafted “unfolding” (a term, I believe, used by John Cage in some of his lectures–a professor at CSUF introduced me to the concept). I’ve written before that musical form is the balance of repetition and contrast, and “Life In Technicolor” is an excellent example.

After the initial fade-in of the electronics and a few times through their progression, a hammered dulcimer begins the main riff of the song by itself. Then the song continually builds, gradually adding instruments and slowly morphing the chord progressions, all the while having way too much fun. The balance of continuity and repetition with new, evolving, unfolding material is pitch-perfect–which is hard to achieve in a pop song. Since most pop songs have simple progressions and standard instrumentation, an instrumental pop song without vocals can get boring very quickly. But even though “Life In Technicolor” still uses only standard pop chords (I, IV, V and vi, for those keeping score at home), it mixes up the instrumentation a little and manages to sustain interest by keeping that perfect balance. It builds to an exciting climax and then quickly falls and blends seamlessly into the next track, “Cemeteries Of London” (which I just now realize is incorrectly labeled “Cemeteries In London” in the title of the linked post… darn it).

You can listen to “Life In Technicolor” here, courtesy of Last.fm: click on the black play button in the player on the right side of the page.


Wedding Music, Part 3: Recessional

Posted by AJ Harbison at 8:01 pm

One of my favorite TV shows is House, a medical version of a Sherlock Holmes mystery: “House solves mysteries where the villain is a medical malady and the hero is an irreverent, controversial doctor who trusts no one, least of all his patients.” It’s now in its fifth season, but since I’m watching it on DVD and very slowly, my lovely fiancée and I are only in season two. One of my favorite episodes, which was the fourteenth episode of season one, is “Control,” in which House, by questionable ethical means, saves a young CEO who has destroyed her heart by ipecac self-poisoning and bulimia. I don’t think I agree with his decision in the episode, but despite that disagreement the episode is very well-written and the ending is one of the most satisfying that I’ve seen yet on the show. After his final conversation with the patient, House returns to his office and begins playing “Baba O’Riley” by The Who over his iPod speakers. The song has an awesome intro, and the feeling of triumph is unmistakable. (You can watch the whole episode for free, albeit in low quality and with Spanish subtitles, here. If you’d like to skip to the last scene, start playing the video and then click around in the timer bar until you get to about the 38’30″ mark. If you really trust me on this one and want to watch the whole episode on Amazon for $1.99, click here. You can listen to the entirety of “Baba O’Riley” for free, courtesy of our good friend Last.fm, here.)

As I’ve mentioned, I really love this episode and I really love the way the song is used to evoke elation in the watcher/listener. So, a few days ago I got an idea for the recessional for my wedding. (As I wrote before, I’m going to be writing all the music for my wedding ceremony.) The piano would start by “fading in” with a high ostinato repeating pattern, perhaps based on the keyboard intro to “Baba O’Riley” but not the same. The anticipation builds as the pattern continues and the pastor says: “I present to you, for the first time, Mr. and Mrs. AJ Harbison!” at which point I give a quick conducting cue beat and the pianist crashes down on low octaves in the left hand–the same notes and rhythm as in the song. (Believe it or not, Eleanor actually really likes the conducting cue idea.) Hey, satisfaction, elation and triumph all count at the culmination of the wedding ceremony, right? I think it’ll make a rocking recessional. And I can’t wait to give that cue–more fun than a composer should be allowed to have!


"Just As I Am" Branches Out

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:32 am

First off forgive me for not posting over the weekend–your favorite listening blogger came down with a cold; but I’m feeling much better today and we’re back to your regularly scheduled posts!

Second, I want to thank everyone for the proliferation of comments recently. As I’ve mentioned before, I love getting your thoughts and opinions and dialoguing with you on the site here, and I appreciate the consistent comments I’ve been getting on the last few posts. Keep it up!

Third (now that I got those things out of the way) I wanted to inform you all of an exciting development for me. I’ve written several times about my arrangement of the hymn “Just As I Am,” and how the Jeff Mercer Band has been playing it pretty regularly at their River of Worship services. (Incidentally, I drove up to Redlands to record my acoustic guitar parts and vocals for the Jeff Mercer Band CD two weeks ago, and it’s now entering the final stage of production. I can’t wait to share the version of “Just As I Am” from the CD with all of you; it has a full band behind it and it sounds really cool.) One thing I haven’t written about yet is that I also shared the song with the worship director at my church, and he’s been playing it on Sunday mornings for several weeks now. I’ve gotten great feedback from members of the congregation, and one of my musically-inclined friends suggested I try to publish the song.

Since I’ve never published anything (yet) and didn’t know quite how to proceed, I sent an email to the CFAMC Yahoo group and asked their advice. I got a number of excellent responses, which were all encouraging but also noted that “publishing” (in the sense of finding a company to print sheet music) is not necessarily a profitable way to go in regards to worship music, since most worship bands learn new songs by imitating recordings rather than reading sheet music. However, several of them said they really liked the song and wanted to pass it on to the worship leaders at their respective churches. Based on the latest emails I’ve gotten, it was already played by one church in Ohio yesterday, and is in the process of being pitched to churches in Canton and Granville. It’s exciting to know that a song I’ve written is being played in at least two churches literally 2400 miles apart, with more likely to come!

If there are any CFAMCers who read this blog, I want to thank you for your group’s thoughtful and encouraging response. (And I’d love to hear from you and know you’re listening!) And for everyone else–I’ll keep you posted on the continued progress of the song!


Slumdog Millionaire Soundtrack, A.R. Rahman

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:10 am

Last week my lovely fiancée and I decided to take a break from wedding planning and go out on an old-fashioned date to dinner and a movie. The movie we saw was Slumdog Millionaire, a film about an 18 year-old orphan named Jamal from the slums of Mumbai who becomes a contestant on India’s version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” and is poised to win the grand prize of 20 million rupees. But when the show breaks for the night, he is arrested and interrogated by a police inspector who doesn’t believe a “slumdog” could know so much. Jamal tells the inspector his life story, each new stage in his tale revealing how he knew the answer to one of the questions.

Eleanor and I both enjoyed the film very much. It was a very well-made movie, with terrific cinematography, good writing and good acting–a fun ride. I remarked to her that the story was filled with contrasts pitted against each other: the rich gang lords contrasted with the orphans in the slums; the superficiality and shallowness of the game show contrasted with the gritty, authentic picture of life on the streets; the old slums and trash heaps in Mumbai contrasted with seemingly endless new construction. And this contrast of old and new came out in the music quite a bit, too. The score was written by A.R. Rahman, a composer who apparently has done a lot of Indian movies. I noticed that a lot of the music utilized modern electronics and beats, but featured traditional Indian instruments.

You can hear some samples on the Amazon product page for the soundtrack. “O… Saya,” a collaboration between the composer and artist M.I.A., features a computer-altered voice singing a traditional-sounding melody above fast percussion. An uncredited editorial review on the Amazon page declares the song “a rumbling hybrid of Bollywood and hip-hop.” The soundtrack also juxtaposes more ethnic music like “Ringa Ringa” (track number six) with “Latika’s Theme” (track number eight), an atmospheric treatment of a theme that could fit in a variety of movies and becomes a pop song in “Dreams On Fire,” the penultimate track. And the third track, “Mausam & Escape,” sounds perhaps like the Indian version of “Through The Fire And Flames.”

The Amazon page also quotes Kurt Loder of MTV.com as saying this: “The propulsive score, by Bollywood soundtrack auteur A. R. Rahman, is hip-hop fusion of a very up-to-date kind.” I agree. Artistically, I appreciated how the fusion in the music reflected the fusion in the movie; and as a listener I enjoyed the music for adding another dimension to a very cool film.


Some Thoughts On Guitar Hero III

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:09 am

My younger brother received the Nintendo Wii video game Guitar Hero III: Legends Of Rock for Christmas, and he and I have wiled away several hours since then (well, many hours for him) living vicariously as rock legends. It’s a fun game; he’s better than I am, so he beat me in the Face Off mode, but we preferred to rock together in a co-op career. (We actually beat the game in that mode on Christmas night and were slightly disappointed that it wasn’t more difficult. Of course we could always try it again on the “Hard” setting.) We also enjoyed naming our bands: his solo act is Socratic Method (keep in mind that he’s a Torrey student) and our co-op band was called War In Heaven (based on the title of this book he got me for Christmas). Not bad as rock legend names go. But, as always, there was a nagging thought in the back of my mind: “I could do a TLB post on this!”

Most of the music in the game is not exactly my cup of tea, but since they usually have only one or two songs from a particular artist, they have the liberty to choose good ones. There’s even an AFI song I found tolerable. I’m not a big fan of classic rock in general, which (I think) most of these artists could be classified as, but I do enjoy rocking out to classic rock guitar. There’s something about the tone and style of classic rock guitar that just feels right. And how can anyone not enjoy “Cliffs Of Dover”?

As a musician who’s used to reading music, the “notation” used in the game is difficult for me to adjust to. (If you’ve never seen what the game looks like, click here for a YouTube video.) The rhythm seems so imprecise–there are only gridlines every beat and everything not on a beat falls somewhere in between. It’s hard to understand what the rhythms are in a given song until I hear them a few times–if they’re syncopated, it’s very unlikely that I would understand what rhythm they’re trying to convey (much less be able to play it) until I hear it and can associate the actual rhythm with how it looks as the little colored dots rush toward me. Though I guess any sort of notation that’s more detailed would be impractical.

It’s interesting also to get a visual and tactile perspective on the music. Usually music is just listened to, but playing Guitar Hero associates the audio with your eyes and your hands as well. You start to see patterns in the riffs much more quickly and easily when you can use two or three senses to identify them instead of just one.

And just in case anyone is curious: No, playing Guitar Hero is nothing like playing a real guitar.

Just for fun, here’s a video of “Through The Fire And Flames” performed allegedly by a live person, 100% correct on the Expert level. Superhuman.


Midnight Hour Live, Time The Fourth

Posted by AJ Harbison at 8:30 pm

(Before I get into this post I’d like to throw out congratulations to the Detroit Lions, the first NFL team ever to win 0 games and lose 16 in a single season. Here’s to perfection!)

I went out again to see Midnight Hour at the Detroit Bar on Monday night–their last show there in their December residency. (You can see all my previous posts on Midnight Hour by clicking here.) Unfortunately no TLB readers took me up on my offer to show up and get a free drink, but I enjoyed myself nonetheless.

The opening band was called Janu and the Whale Sharks, a local OC indie band. Brad (my friend and the frontman for Midnight Hour) said that he’d heard good things about them, and he and I were both pretty impressed. They started off with a banjo, which is pretty awesome in and of itself, and we liked their sound. Their Myspace page lists their genre as “Folk Rock / Lyrical / Healing & Easy Listening;” I don’t know what “lyrical” or “healing” music is, but it was definitely folk rock, and it was much better than the type of music that’s typically referred to as “easy listening.” Worth a quick Myspace listen. Dynamite Walls also performed again.

And then Midnight Hour was up. Throughout the Mondays in December, the Detroit Bar had some Christmas lights on the stage, snaking along the floor, wrapping around amps and crawling up mike stands. But tonight they rearranged them, to great effect, and spelled out the band’s name:

The band was great again, of course. I recognized all the songs from the previous weeks, and they played the songs the same way, but their energy and passion in playing makes hearing even the same songs worth it. They also played an encore at the behest of the audience. I mentioned in passing in one of my previous posts that Brad played a solo acoustic encore at two of the shows; the last time I went there weren’t enough cries for an encore to get one. But this time the full band played the encore and that was a pleasant surprise.

I tried to record several videos with my cell phone, but none of them turned out good enough to be postable. So you’ll just have to content yourself with the band’s YouTube channel and the other ways to listen to their music I detailed in this post. I’m excited to get their album when it finally comes out, and see them play more live shows in the near future–hopefully ones that start earlier than 11 pm! I’ll let you know if I hear anything more about the band–if there’s any news about their album or more shows coming up. And in the meantime, have a fun, safe and very Happy New Year!


If You Didn't Get Enough Lights This Christmas…

Posted by AJ Harbison at 11:59 pm

… go check out the Christmas post at The Rum Creeters. My friend (and soon-to-be in-law) Rachel is one of the contributors, and I always enjoy reading the blog. One of the authors, Erin, discovered a house with an outrageous Christmas light display–timed to music on a radio frequency the house’s owners had apparently bought for the holidays. The lights flash in time and in different groups with the rhythms of the music (the first song is the Peanuts rag “Linus and Lucy,” and the second one is a rock song I don’t recognize). Pretty impressive. Normally I’d embed the videos here, but since I secretly want to promote their blog as well I’ll just give you a link to the post:

The Creeters’ First Christmas

Enjoy, and merry Christmas again!


I’ve been out twice more to see Midnight Hour, my friend Brad Lodge’s band–on December 15th and December 22nd. (My first two posts about them can be found here and here.) They have a residency playing at Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa every Monday night in December–which means you have one more chance to go out and see them.

Their live show was even better these two times than it was the first time I saw them. The sets were also quite different–they included the three songs from their demo CD again, as well as “Running Away,” but they also introduced several songs they didn’t play the first time, which I appreciated. I imagine that limited sets can be a danger for bands still in the process of writing their first album, but I was grateful to see that Midnight Hour avoided it. It sounded to me like Brad’s voice was a little tired, and he said that he was getting over a cold, but he still led the band with an infectious energy that seemed to be at an even higher level than before. The band was still tight, the music was still great, and although the place was still very loud I brought earplugs this time.

(Bonus aside: Someday I’ll get high fidelity earplugs, which reduce noise without muffling it. Normal earplugs cut out many more high frequencies than low frequencies, so the sound is distorted; hi-fi earplugs are “attenuated” so as to replicate the ear’s natural response and reduce sound at all frequencies. I had thought that so-called “musician’s earplugs,” which are custom-made, were pretty expensive, and upon a bit of research it seems they are; however, Etymotic Research offers a cheap generic alternative in their ETY•Plugs™ (ER•20 High Fidelity Earplugs). Apparently they reduce noise by about 20 decibels at all frequencies, and are available on Etymotic’s website for twelve bucks a pair. They claim that safe, permissible sound exposure to a rock concert at 112 dB increases from five minutes with unprotected ears [i.e. more than five minutes' exposure at that volume endangers your hearing] to 1.25 hours. Hmmm, do I sense a small Christmas gift for myself here…?)

In any case, the main point is that Midnight Hour is a good band, and their live show seems to be getting even better. Due to the strange fact that there were no chairs set up in the bar on the 15th, I shared my table with a girl about my age and her mother, who had found the band online and wanted to check them out. They both enjoyed the two opening bands (Dynamite Walls again and a new band called Y.E.A.R.S., for which I can’t find a website), and although I appreciated Dynamite Walls more and Y.E.A.R.S. wasn’t terrible, I sensed that my two new friends were not too discriminating in their musical tastes. However, they immediately agreed with me that Midnight Hour was clearly the best of the three bands. Again, even though I feel like there are things the band could do better, they are very good at what they do, and I can’t wait for their album and also to see how they mature.

That being said, again, you have one more chance to see them. Detroit Bar (21+), 843 West 19th Street, Costa Mesa, CA 92627, 9:30 pm, Monday, December 29th. No cover. That means it’s a FREE SHOW. Come out and hear some good music for free. You know you want to.

Special offer: If you see me at the show and mention TLB, I’ll buy you a drink! (If you need to know what I look like, click here.) That’s how much I want to see you there–and how good Midnight Hour is.


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’!


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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