I love the first two City on a Hill albums. When the first one came out, I could hear a collective sigh of relief (or maybe it was just the sigh in my own head) from millions of Christians. Finally, the CCM world recognized that there is value in traditionalism. The success of “God of Wonders” was mind-blowing, not because there was something new there, but because it was something old. There was bona-fide liturgy on that record.
Also, the collaborative atmosphere was something new – sure, Steven Curtis Chapman and Geoff Moore wrote songs together, and Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant were doing . . . something . . . together (don’t get me started on Grant/Chapman/Gill – it’ll get ugly in here), but there hasn’t been anything like this before; successful bands – Third Day, Caedmon’s Call, Sixpence, Jars of Clay – getting together, not just on the same album, but on the same songs! There was also a feeling of passion about it – it seemed that these artists authentically cared about the project; that they cared about bringing substance back into CCM. Throw in a little Terry Taylor, Gene Eugene (God rest his soul), Derri Daugherty and Steve Hindalong to pull it all together, and it was wonderful. Oh sure, the label tried to kill it by putting FFH and the Newsboys on it, but not even the record label could destroy the worth of this project. Then Sing Alleluia, the second album, came out and it was more of the same – Jennifer Knapp (who I normally don’t like, but she’s great here) and Mac Powell doing “Sing Alleluia,” Caedmon and Phil Keaggy on the wonderful “Communion.” All in all, it was a great follow-up to the first one.
When I heard about a City on a Hill Christmas record, I was, understandably, excited. I thought that Christmas music could use a little freshness, a new perspective. Something less about snow and more about divinity, you know? Then, I heard that Julie Miller was on it, and that did it. I ran out and bought it. That was yesterday.
Well, I’ve listened to it 3-4 times since then and I am thoroughly disappointed. There is nothing new here. It feels stale, over-produced, and worst of all, ordinary.
First of all, to paraphrase Paula Cole, where has all the collaboration gone? Other than Tracks 2, 8, 9, and 12 (and Leigh is just doing BGVs on this one) there is hardly any. We’ve got a bunch of bands doing their own thing. Here’s the track listing:
1. I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day – Instrumental
2. It’s Christmas Time – Cliff & Danielle Young (Caedmon’s Call), Derri Daugherty, Sara Groves, Dan Haseltine (Jars of Clay), Out of Eden, Leigh Nash (Sixpence), Michael Tait, Terry Taylor, Mac Powell (Third Day)
3. Silent Night – Sixpence None the Richer
4. Holy Emmanuel – Terry Scott Taylor
5. Babe in the Straw – Caedmon’s Call
6. Child of Love – Sara Groves
7. Bethlehem Town – Jars of Clay
8. Manger Throne – Third Day with Julie Miller and Derri Daugherty
9. Away in a Manger - Julie Miller and Derri Daugherty
10. Do You Hear What I Hear? – Out of Eden
11. In the Bleak Midwinter – Paul Coleman Trio
12. O Holy Night – Michael Tait and Leigh Nash
To start with, there’s a decent mix of Traditional Christmas carols and new stuff. The carols, “ Silent Night,” “Away in a Manger,” “Do You Hear What I Hear?” “In the Bleak Midwinter,” and “O Holy Night” are good enough choices, but the arrangements are completely bland.
Sixpence’s performance of “Silent Night” feels mailed-in. Leigh Nash is wasted here on what has the potential to be a tender, heartfelt song, but instead feels like every other version of the standard.
Julie Miller (my heroine) makes a decent effort on “Away in a Manger” (with help from Derri Daugherty), but it comes across as flat. This is the best of the Christmas carol group.
The Paul Coleman Trio doesn’t screw up “In the Bleak Midwinter,” but that’s about the best I can say about it. And what’s up with the drum machine? Come on guys.
Out of Eden does “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Have you seen the “Gemini’s Twin” skits on Saturday Night Live? That’s all I can think about when I listen to Out of Eden. That’s a bit unfair, because they are talented vocalists, but they do not fit on this record (we’ll call this the FFH anomaly).
Lastly, Mike Tait is just ok on “O Holy Night” (notice a theme here?). Leigh Nash is again wasted, though. She’s relegated to BGVs, and should have just stayed home.
The originals are a bit better than the traditional stuff, but not by much. The big collaborative song, “It’s Christmas Time,” (no, it’s not “Do They Know It’s Christmas Time (Feed the World)”) is mediocre at best. The collaboration on this track is completely cluttered, like they were trying to make up for the rest of the album. Lyrically, it is uninspired and banal. A sample:
In the city on a hill
Hear the bells chime
Peace on earth, good will
It’s Christmas Time.
Ditto for Track 4, “Holy Emmanuel” by Terry Taylor. I think Terry needs some help from the rest of The Lost Dogs. In fact, so far all of The Lost Dogs have appeared on City on a Hill albums, with the exception of Mike Roe (Memo to Hindalong – GET MIKE ROE FOR THE NEXT ONE!). But I digress, “Holy Emmanuel” is probably the worst non-Out of Eden song on here.
Now, it’s not all bad news. There are some respectable tunes on the record. One of them is “Babe in the Straw” by Caedmon’s Call (written by Steve Hindalong and Derri Daugherty), which focuses on Christ’s future as Savior - Save us tonight/Little babe in the straw. Phil Madeira shows up on this one, too – accordion, B3, strings – good stuff.
Sara Groves’ offering, “Child of Love,” is another bright spot on a dreary album. “Child of Love,” another Hindalong tune, is a song sung by Mary to the newborn Christ. Sara brings the right amount of gentleness to a sweet tune: You were made for all mankind/But you will always be mine.
Jars of Clay’s tune “Bethlehem Town” is nice, but not great. If you can put aside the bad, bad, bad theology of it, it’s a catchy tune, with a kind of jazzy feel to it. Not bad, but nothing special.
“Manger Throne” is, for me, the best song on the record (with Groves’ song coming in second). Written by Julie Miller, it’s a simple tune, powerfully sung by Mac Powell. Julie background vocals complement Mac while maintaining that Julie Miller originality. It’s a song about why God would leave the glory of Heaven to come to earth: What kind of king would leave his throne/In Heav’n to make this earth his home? Authentic and sincere, this track is the star of the album.
That’s it folks. Overall, despite a couple of bright spots, a very disappointing effort. It fits in very well with every other pre-packaged, vending machine Christmas album that will come out this year. Maybe I built it up too much. Maybe my expectations were unfair. Maybe it will grow on me. Maybe not.
But, I won’t slam this album without offering an alternative. If you want a really great Christmas album, go get Your King Has Come from Grassrootsmusic.com. It’s a modern take on Christmas tradition, and it’s done very well. Highlights: Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken on “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” and Andrew Osenga’s “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.”
Rollingstone.com has a really nice Scrapbook written by Bono about U2's various tours. The pictures are definitely the highlight, though. Make sure you look for the Sinatra pic, and Bono with his kid in the swimming pool.