Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Music Review: Christmas Stories - Repeat the Sounding Joy by Jason Gray

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Many original Christmas songs with a fresh look at the story
Cons: A couple of songs don't quite work for me.
The Bottom Line
Original songs
And some original thoughts
Make this disc stand out




Jason Gray Looks for Lessons in Some Familiar Christmas Stories

When I first heard that Jason Gray was going to release a Christmas CD this year I knew two things - it would not be your traditional Christmas project and I was going to have to get it.  Now that I have Christmas Stories: Repeat the Sounding Joy, I can say with certainty that both are true.

Now if you are looking for an instant Christmas hit, you'll be disappointed.  There are only four traditional Christmas songs on this thirteen track disc.  Of those, "O Come all Ye Faithful" is instrumental and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" is just the first verse and only about a minute long.  "O Holy Night" is the two verses we're used to hearing, but with guitar being the main instrument and a slightly different arrangement.  It's fun.  Finally, there's "Joy to the World," which includes lots of new lyrics.

Another thing that isn't going to make this an instant Christmas classic is the style.  While Jason brings bells in on a few of his songs, for the most part he sticks to his usual guitar based folk/pop blend.  I can tell this is going to take a few years before I think of it as Christmas.  And yet I certainly do like what is here.

The heart of this disc is looking at the Christmas story from the eyes of the people we are already familiar with, but trying to pick up some different takes on things.  That sequence starts with "Rest (The Song of the Innkeeper)."  It's a catchy number as he sings about how busy he is and how crowded the inn is and how he just needs rest.  It's up tempo and I find myself singing along.  Unfortunately, I also find myself arguing with the moral of the song, which seems to point a finger at the innkeeper for not knowing who was born in his stable that night.  Honestly, I always feel sorry for him and think he gets a bum rap.  His inn was full.  He gave what he could.

"Ave Maria (A Song for Mary)" comes next.  It's a wonderful song that creates some English verses around Franz Schubert's classic "Ave Maria," which Jason does sing in French.  (The English translation is in the notes, which I think is a nice touch.)  But the verses are about Mary and her life as an ordinary girl and woman.  There is something fun about the contrast.  The song is guitar based, but when he really gets going on the chorus, cellos comes in, giving it a hint of a more classical feel to the piece.

The first song I really fell in love with was Joseph's song, "Forgiveness is a Miracle."  There are just so many things I take for granted about Christmas, and Joseph's forgiveness of Mary before the angel visits him is one of them.  The song is written to Joseph asking how he reacted to the news and what it took to get him to forgive.  It actually makes me think about those I need to forgive and if I'm doing a good job of it or not.

For pure fun, there's "Gloria (The Song of the Shepherds)."  It is a pure celebration of what Jesus coming to earth means.  And the song is upbeat with a catchy melody.  It leaves me singing "Gloria."

But no Jason Gray disc is complete without some conviction, and that job falls to "Easier (The Song of the Wiseman)."  In my mind it's only marginally connected to the wiseman since it talks about bringing gifts to God while what He really wants is not a gift but us.  "Am I the only gift/That You long for me to bring?"  Yikes!  He also weaves bits of the little recorded third verse of "O Holy Night" into the song.  Since that traditional carol is right before this song, it works very well.

For all that works here, a couple of the songs do fall flat, at least for me.  "I Will Find a Way (The Song of Emmanuel)" is an extended analogy of God coming to earth told from the point of view of someone trying to show love to a wounded person.  It just doesn't work for me, although knowing me and Jason Gray, this will probably be my favorite a year from now when the lyrics finally click for me.  Similarly, I'm not the biggest fan of "Christmas for Jesus."  It's only a minute long, and the idea is good about Jesus wanting our hearts for Christmas, but Jason's son Gus sings it.  He's an okay singer, but a few of the notes are clearly a struggle for him.

The disc begins and ends with a couple of songs about Christmas and children.  They mirror each other and they talk about the fun of the season while also pointing us to "the child who makes us children again."  It's a good reminder that what Jesus really came to do is save us and make us God's children.  I love Christmas, but I love being reminded to look beyond this season and be reminded what it is truly all about.

Despite a couple of mediocre songs, Jason Gray has delivered a wonderful gift with Christmas Stories: Repeat the Sounding Joy.  I will be enjoying this one for years to come.

CD Length: 44:32
Tracks:
1. Oh Come All Ye Faithful
2. Christmas is Coming
3. O Little Town of Bethlehem
4. Rest (Song of the Innkeeper)
5. Ave Maria (A Song for Mary)
6. Forgiveness is a Miracle (A Song for Joseph)/Man of Mercy
7. Gloria (The Song of the Shepherds)
8. O Holy Night
9. Easier (The Song of the Wiseman)
10. I Will Find a Way (The Song of Emmanuel)
11. Christmas for Jesus
12. Children Again
13. Joy to the World

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