Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Music Review: Noel by Joan Baez


Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fresh arrangements and rarer songs
Cons: Over vibrato on some songs is annoying to me
The Bottom Line:
Nostalgic music
Explains this in collection
For instant Christmas




All I Know of Joan Baez Yet a Christmas Staple

There are some artists I know only by the Christmas records we had growing up.  Joan Baez's Noël is one of those.  And it's a pretty mellow release filled with orchestra and old time instruments.  So you can imagine my surprise when I learned she was a folk singer.  Fans who know her folk music might be put off by this release, but I happen to still enjoy it every year.

What really sets this disc apart are the arrangements, which aim to mirror what would have been popular when the songs were originally written.  They even dug out some of those old instruments.  So you get things such as viols, lutes, and harpsichord.  I'm sure it was a shock to those expecting guitar led folk, but I find it a fun change.  As I mentioned earlier, these instruments are supported by strings and other orchestra instruments at times, which makes for a good mix of things.

The disc opens with "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."  The arrangement here is very heavy on the strings, which provides a nice background to Joan's vocals.  The result is hauntingly beautiful.

There are several lesser recorded songs on this disc.  I think I only have one other recording of "Down in Yon Forrest," for example.  This is an upbeat version that again uses strings to a dramatic effect.  Then there are such songs as "The Carol of the Birds" and "Mary's Wandering" that I haven't heard anywhere else.  Then again, "Mary's Wandering" deals more with Jesus' crucifixion than His birth, and the first song is about birds spreading the news of Jesus' birth.

There are quite a few short instrumental tracks on this disc.  And by short I mean usually under a minute each.  It's unfortunate since some of these are lesser recorded songs like "Good King Wenceslas" and "Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella."  Some of the others are better known like "Angels We Have Heard on High" and "Deck the Halls."  That last one is under 20 seconds but is a fun fast paced interlude.

Speaking of fast paced, there's "What Child is This?"  This is the only version I've heard that isn't slow and contemplative, and the only place I've heard the final verse about the new year.  For that alone I like this one as something different.  The lute and winds behind her are a fun change as well.  But not all the songs are different.  "Silent Night" is still reverent and quiet, for example.

And then there are the songs sung in German.  "Ave Maria" is a natural choice since I think I've only ever heard it sung that way.  It's definitely a classical leaning piece, and Joan lets her full vibrato free on this one.  It's not my favorite, but I do recognize that it is well done.  She also chose to sing "O Holy Night" in German.  Considering I have so many versions of this song already in English, I don't mind at all.  Again, the strings behind her absolutely shine.

The most recent CD release includes six tracks recorded but cut from the record due to space.  They include two more instrumental tracks and the familiar "The First Noel."  I was most interested in the French version of "Away in a Manger."  It's the exact same harpsichord heavy arrangement of the song we already have in English.  I'm curious why French was chosen since Martin Luther would have originally written it in German.  Personally, I'm glad the English version was included in the record, but this one feels so familiar already because the arrangement is the same.

My biggest issue with this record is Joan's overuse of her vibrato.  A few times, she over reaches for my taste and heads toward opera range.  So this isn't one I'm drawn to at the beginning of the Christmas season.  But when I do pull it out, I immediately am drawn to Christmas past and warm memories of good times with my family.

And so Noël will continue to have a place in my collection.  It's out of character for me, but since it was out of character for Joan Baez, that must make it a great fit.

CD Length: 54:14
Tracks:
1. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
2. Coventry Carol
3. Good King Wenceslas (Instrumental)
4. The Little Drummer Boy
5. I Wonder as I Wander
6. Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella (Instrumental)
7. Down in Yon Forrest
8. The Carol of the Birds
9. Angels We Have Heard on High (Instrumental)
10. Ave Maria (Sung in German)
11. Mary's Wandering
12. Deck the Halls (Instrumental)
13. Away in a Manger
14. Adeste Fidelis (Instrumental)
15. Cantique De Noel (O Holy Night, sung in German)
16. What Child is This?
17. Silent Night
The following songs were originally released with the 2001 CD reissue
18. The First Noel
19. We Three Kings (Instrumental)
20. Virgin Mary
21. Good Christian Kings (aka Good Christian Men Rejoice) (Instrumental)
22. Burgundian Carol
23. Away in a Manger (French Version)

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