Saturday, June 22, 2013

Music Review: The Heart of Christmas by Matthew West

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Lots of new songs and new arrangements
Cons: A couple songs I don't care for
The Bottom Line
New material
Mixed with new takes on classics
Makes for a good disc

With Lots of New Songs, Matthew West Gets to The Heart of Christmas

I can't remember the last year where I didn't buy at least one new Christmas CD.  Seems my favorite artists rotate who is releasing a Christmas CD that year.

With the huge success of a Christmas duet with Amy Grant last year, I wasn't at all surprised that Matthew West decided to release a Christmas CD in 2011.  The Heart Of Christmas is made up of over half new songs and some different takes on old classics.  Overall, it's a winner.

Matthew and Amy collaborated on "Give This Christmas Away," which actually was part of last year's VeggieTales DVD release.  The idea behind this duet is to tangibly share the love and joy of Christmas by giving to those less fortunate than ourselves.  It's a challenging reminder as we enter a season that can be so busy we forget to look to those around us.

Amy Grant's husband Vince Gill also appears on this disc, doing a duet with Matthew on "Leaving Heaven."  As far as I know, this is the first song written from Jesus' point of view about Christmas.  Slightly on the upbeat side, the guitar picking really helps set it apart.  The lyrics really make you feel special as we are reminded Jesus came to Earth to die for us.

Rounding out the trio of duets, Mandisa joins in on "Christmas Makes Me Cry."  The song isn't as sad as it sounds, although the verses do point out the people who don't have the merry Christmas we all look forward to.  But the chorus turns that into "Tears of thankfulness/Tears of hope."  Still, I'm not that big a fan.

The real tear jerker on the disc is "One Last Christmas."  It tells the story of a town that came together to give a terminally ill little boy a last Christmas.  It's a slow piano ballad, and I dare you to listen to it without having tears come to your eyes.  There is a little warmth to it giving it a bittersweet feel, so it's not as bad as some tear jerker Christmas songs, but I'm not a fan again.  Does that make me heartless?  Maybe, but there you go.

On the other hand, the disc opener and closer are wonderful.  "Come On, Christmas" is a toe tapping upbeat number that captures my excitement for the season perfectly with talk about not taking down decorations or singing "Jingle Bell Rock" since July.  He even asks Santa to come a little early this year.  It perfectly captures the magic and fun of the season.

"Day After Christmas" talks about the letdown of the season being behind us, but reminds us that "the light of the world is still here."  It's a nice way to finish things off as face the rest of the year.  And I love his lines about "Come January I'm ready for summer/The Super Bowl's over and I'll settle for spring."  Yep, that's me exactly.  (And I live in Southern California.  Imagine if I had to deal with true winter.)

The final of the new tracks is the title track.  "The Heart of Christmas" is a slower number that encourages us to slow down and enjoy our family and friends this Christmas instead of getting caught up in the busyness of the season.  What surprises me is that he waits until the bridge to mention Jesus.  Even so, it's a good reminder that people are more important that check lists.

When it comes to the classics, they are a mix of traditional and unique.  What do I mean?  Well, "Silent Night" is a quiet instrumental track.  "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "O, Holy Night" are filled with piano and strings and feel very familiar.  But then there's "Jingle Bells" that takes the song in a toe tapping, jazzy direction and mixes in touches of "Deck the Halls."  I'm not normally a fan of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" because it is too slow and repetitive.  That's not the case here as Matthew gives it fresh life with an upbeat Gospel rendition with more hints of jazz.  It's way too much fun.

Because the new tracks outnumber the old standards, this one will take a couple years to begin to truly feel like Christmas to me.  But, with as many Christmas CD's as I have, it's nice to have something that is different.

The Heart Of Christmas won't be one of the first discs I pull out every Christmas, but it should still get plenty of play each year because of its terrific new songs and good classics.

CD Length: 48:49
1. Come On, Christmas
2. Jingle Bells
3. The Heart of Christmas
4. Leaving Heaven
5. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
6. One Last Christmas
7. Silent Night
8. Give This Christmas Away
9. O, Holy Night
10. Christmas Makes Me Cry
11. O Come, All Ye Faithful
12. Day After Christmas

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