Thursday, April 25, 2013

Music Review: Peace on Earth by Casting Crowns

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Wonderful Christmas music new and classic
Cons: Still don't like "While You Were Sleeping."
The Bottom Line:
Casting Crowns Christmas
Not quite what I had hoped for
But still worth buying

Not the Casting Crowns Christmas CD I Hoped for.  But that Doesn't Mean It's Bad.

Every year about July I start checking to see who is coming out with new Christmas music. Like I have time to listen to all the CDs I already have. Anyway, somehow this year, the fact that Casting Crowns had a Christmas CD coming out managed to slip by me until just a couple weeks ago. But when I found out, I was thrilled. I rushed out to get Peace on Earth. Then I looked at the track list. The song titles were a little too familiar. Still, I stuck it into my player and fell in love with what was here.

Now let me explain my initial disappointment. The members of Casting Crowns have a way of taking old familiar topics and making them come alive for me. They don't necessarily say anything new. Some of their songs are things I've heard a million times before. But I connect with their lyrics. So I was hoping they would bring that magic to Christmas with several original songs. There is only one truly original track on here. Many of the tracks are things I have plenty of copies of already. But this CD is still going to become a seasonal favorite.

Take, for example, "O Come All Ye Faithful." In typical Casting Crowns fashion it is heavy on the guitar while still allowing other instruments to be heard. But what makes it really stand out is the harmonies. Lead singer Mark Hall does a beautiful duet with one of the women of the group. The same can be said for the more upbeat "Joy to the World." You can really hear the cello at times in this one. This is also about the most upbeat they get. But the band has never been known for their rockiness. "Away in a Manger" starts out fairly familiar, but they tweak it the last time through ever so slightly. It keeps it fresh.

"Christmas Offering" is the previous mentions truly new track. It's a quite worship song that praises God for becoming man for us. Overall, there are more strings here then on one of their standard CD's, and that's true here as well. They make a nice background to the guitar and words.

Speaking of more then usual, the women of the group get to sing more. In fact, lead singer Mark Hall doesn't sing at all on "God is with Us." I first heard this song when Amy Grant recorded it for the Gloria project. To be honest, there isn't much difference here. But that's a good thing. It's a strong piano ballad that is absolutely lovely.

I must admit I am not that familiar with "Sweet Little Jesus Boy." I only have it on one or two other CDs, and I don't pull them out that often. So don't take my word for it, but this version feels slightly different to me. Maybe it's just the piano and strings, but I swear the melody is different. Either way, it's a nice lullaby.

Back on their second CD, Casting Crowns recorded a song called "While You Were Sleeping." The first time I heard it, I thought it was a Christmas song. Apparently, it originally was as they present the "Original Christmas Version" here. For those who loved the original, you'll be glad to know it sounds pretty much the same. It's a piano based ballad that pretty much features the traditional band instruments. Like the original, the song starts out taking about how Bethlehem missed the Savior coming while it slept. But instead of moving on to Jerusalem and Easter like the original version does, this one spends the second verse taking more about what Mary and the baby suffered that first night. Unfortunately, the third verse is the same as the original. I have softened over the years, but I still don't like trying to apply things directly to America. But that's a debate for a theology setting.

I've saved my two favorite tracks for the end. And they open and close the disc. Opening things is "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Mark Hall took the familiar words and composed an all new melody including a chorus. It's now in a minor key, and he is joined on the chorus by a boy's choir. It is hauntingly beautiful and it makes you hear it in an all new way.

Closing the disc is an instrumental version of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." It sounds like a concerto for violin and piano with other strings in the background. It starts quietly but builds as it goes along both in tempo and volume. It's the perfect way to close the disc.

As I mentioned earlier, this CD doesn't feature many upbeat tracks. It feels like something you would listen to on Christmas Eve sitting by a fire contemplating what Christmas means. Not that I plan to save it for just one night.

As much as I still wish they had included more truly original work on this disc, I do like Peace on Earth. I know it will be a staple of my Christmas collection for many years to come.

CD Length: 39:48
1. I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
2. O Come All Ye Faithful
3. Joy to the World
4. While You Were Sleeping (Original Christmas Version)
5. Silent Night
6. God is with Us
7. Away in a Manger
8. Christmas Offering
9. Sweet Little Jesus Boy
10. O Come, O Come Emmanuel

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