Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Amazing new songs and fun classics
The Bottom Line:
A new classic song
Fun versions of old classics
Make for winning disc
How Many Rock Stars Produce Christmas Music Like downhere?
Even with my large Christmas music collection, when a favorite artist releases a new Christmas project, I have to get it. And so I rushed out to get downhere's (yes, the band doesn't capitalize their name) new CD, How Many Kings: Songs for Christmas as soon as it was released. It's safe to say I will be enjoying this one for many years to come.
One thing downhere really has going for it is the band. Yeah, the four guys have all the traditional instruments covered. There's Glenn Lavender on bass and Jeremy Thiessen on drums. But guitarist Marc Martel and guitarist/keyboardist Jason Germain share lead vocal duties. This gives us some great harmonies or different twists than the usual solo and back up singer formula for a rock band.
I was hardly surprised at two of the "new" tracks on this disc. A couple years back, downhere's record label, Centricity Records, released a compilation Christmas CD. Both of downhere's songs from that disc are here exactly as they were originally recorded. "Glory to God," is a mid tempo praise song around the Angels visit to the shepherds.
If downhere had released a Christmas CD without the title track, I think their fans would have revolted. "How Many Kings" has become a huge hit for the band, so I'm not surprised to find it as the title track here. It opens and closes the disc. The lyrics are the same in both cases as they ask such questions as "How many kings step down from their thrones?/How many lords have abandoned their homes?" among other questions. Pretty powerful lyrics. The opening track is the version we are already familiar with. It's a mid-tempo version that starts with keyboard and slowly adds guitar, bass, and drums. It's very radio friendly and catchy, which means I'm not that surprised it became a hit. The "How Many Kings Re-Imagined" is a very different track. It's slower and incorporates more strings. Jason also takes up the lead vocalist duties here (Marc sang the original) while Marc's counter-melody harmonies play off them perfectly. While I prefer the original, this one is great, too.
There are two more original tracks on the disc. "Christmas in Our Hearts" is a toe tapping song that reminds us that Christmas is not about the decorations and traditions but the change God has done in our hearts. It's got that smooth rock that I love in downhere's music. Lyrically, "Gift Carol" is better. This song talks about the gift God gave us in Jesus. The idea isn't really that revolutionary, but it really stands out to me as a fresh way of saying it.
The rest of the tracks are traditional songs. But that doesn't mean they are done in the same old familiar ways. Some of them certainly sound familiar on the surface. "Angels from the Realms of Glory" relies heavily on piano and strings although you can still hear the guitar in there. It's a slow track, but for some reason, this version really allows me to hear the amazing lyrics to the old hymn.
And they don't mess too much with "Silent Night." It's another slow, piano track.
"What Child is This?" is absolutely amazing. It's acoustic with just finger picked guitar. This is a perfect example of how well Marc and Jason's vocals blend together. Some of these vocals are breathtaking. For added fun, Marc sings one verse in French.
But not all the tracks are traditional. They've really ramped up "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." With the strong percussion and strong electric guitar, you know you are listening to a rock band. It brought a smile to my face the first time I heard it. And even though it is rock, there is something about the bridge that is haunting.
They chose to include a couple of rarer traditional songs on the disc. They've added a new chorus to "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella" to turn their rock ballad version into a bit of a praise song. I like it. More interesting is "Good King Wenceslas." Is there such a thing as rock honky-tonk? If so, that's what this version is. This is the track that's taken the most time to grow on me. I still think it is the weak link on the disc, but I do like it.
And there are two tracks that are pure fun. "Five Golden Rings" is only eleven second long. In an orchestral fan fare, the four guys sing those title words. That's it. I chuckle every time I hear it.
Finally, there's "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." Again, the four guys sing this song in harmony, and they do all the verses, including demanding figgy pudding. Accompanying them this time are percussion (which includes household items and other non-traditional instruments) and a trombone.
This isn't a traditional Christmas album by any stretch of the imagination. However, I enjoy having some variety in my collection. It is in keeping with downhere's normal soft rock style, which I love. As a result, I know I'll be enjoying How Many Kings for years to come. Those who aren't familiar with the band might find it takes a few more listens to fully appreciate it, but if they give it a chance, I think they'll come to love it, too.
CD Length: 44:33
1. How Many Kings
2. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
3. Angels from the Realms of Glory
4. Christmas in Our Hearts
5. Silent Night
6. Good King Wenceslas
7. What Child is This?
8. Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella
9. Five Golden Rings
10. Glory to God
11. Gift Carol
12. We Wish You a Merry Christmas
13. How Many Kings (Re-Imagined)