Cover Stories: Christmas Edition!

Remember when I said I was going to go all out for the Christmas season this year on Harmony Avenue? In fairness, I’ve done much more than I did last year. Still, it hasn’t been quite all I’ve hoped…but that’ s OK. Since it’s only two days before the big day (and I still haven’t wrapped any of my gifts for my family…hey, at least I’ve got them all in the first place…), my planned Christmas Cover Stories series will be condensed into one wild, crazy post. Basically it’s going to be me sharing some intriguing holiday covers, in a disorderly, unorganized, possibly rambling fashion. In other words…business as usual. Let the Christmas cover-sharing commence!

Andrew Belle — “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”

This is one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs, so on paper it wouldn’t quite make sense that I love this cover so much, since it ends up changing a great deal of the melody and whatnot. However, Andrew Belle (the artist of a previous Song of the Day earlier this year) makes the right changes, in my opinion, and is a distinctive, talented enough singer that it really works. It’s both a subtly daring new reinvention of a classic tune, and a warm, heartfelt homage at the same time.

Feist — “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming”

With little more than a guitar (or two?), what sounds like a tambourine, and a small horn section, along with of course her delicate, gorgeous voice, Feist takes on a 16th century German Christmas carol and turns it into something altogether beautiful and new. It’s contemporary but traditional, soft but bold, and above all, peaceful and full of life. A chorus of humming and “ah”-ing atop a classy trumpet solo comes in in the last part of the song and ties it all up in a lovely, almost ethereal bow.

Grace Potter & the Nocturnals — “Please Come Home For Christmas”

I’ve never quite been a fan of this song, mainly because every time someone covers it, it’s done in almost exactly the same style…an inauthentic blues template. Not to be a Scrooge or anything, but it always seems like whoever is singing it is totally phoning it in against a background accompaniment that’s been passed on through the years or something. This version is the first in years that I’ve been able to get behind…there’s something about the energy that firecracker vocalist Grace Potter brings to the song that helps it feel fresh and new, even if it indeed sticks pretty close to the original on the surface. She really digs deep into the song, it seems like, and it comes through in her vocal. It’s fresh, dynamic, and I really love it.

The Puppini Sisters — “Last Christmas”

This actually isn’t the first weird jazzy cover of “Last Christmas” (the cheesy but lovable 80s heartbreak-at-Christmas hit by Wham!) I have, to be honest with you. I also own a version by an obscure…Danish? (don’t quote me on that…) jazz vocalist named Anders Blichfeldt. (It’s highly recommended, but I could find no way whatsoever to embed it. Just search for a compilation called “A Sound of Christmas” on iTunes, in the dead of night under cover of darkness, on the fifth Monday of the second week of…OK, never mind, just search for that compilation and you should be good.) (Update: Listen to it here!) This year (to save me from tears?), however, I found a great cover by a group I’ve loved for a while now, the Puppini Sisters. They’re kind of a throwback act, in a way…they specialize in close-harmony style music (much like the Andrews Sisters in the 1940s…the group was actually named in honor of them, from what I understand), but as a modern twist, they usually apply said harmonies to more recent fare. This is a great example of that technique, and it’s a slowed-down, fun, and also fairly gorgeous cover of a song that you can’t help but love.

Mormon Tabernacle Choir — “Carol of the Bells”

It may be the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, a group that’s been around since the mid-1800s, but this isn’t your mama’s “Carol of the Bells.” Well, I suppose it’s not THAT crazy. But it is a bit of a departure from many arrangements of the tune, in the most wonderful way. I had the great privilege of hearing this version of the tune (by Barlow Bradford, a former associate director of the Choir) for the first time live in the Conference Center, attending the Choir’s annual Christmas concert with special guest Renee Fleming back in 2005. I remember my mouth quite literally dropping open as the key changes kept coming, the piece kept growing, and it all just exploded into a beautiful crescendo at the end that took my breath away. Just when you think it’s going to calm down, it swells even more. Of course, this being the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, it’s all pulled off brilliantly. This is one version of “Carol of the Bells” that you simply have to hear.

Alice Smith — “Silver Bells”

This song, off the excellent “Hotel Cafe Presents Winter Songs” compilation from a few years ago, is stunning. There’s simply no other word to describe it. Alice Smith, a soul-influenced singer-songwriter with a jaw-dropping voice and songwriting skills to match, takes on this tune and makes you forget about anybody else who’s sung it. It’s that powerful, and that effortless.

Josh Groban — “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”

Before Michael Buble’s outstanding piano-ballad version of “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” there was this similarly styled, but still quite unique take on the Christmas hymn “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear.” It’s a beautiful reworking of a timeless song, and it really brings a new angle to the song that’s very nice to hear. The gospel choir, and Josh’s excellent voice, really help anchor the cover and keep it moving, and even though it’s fairly radical a rearrangement, it feels natural, like this is the way it’s been done all along.

Pentatonix — “We Three Kings”

And to close it all off, it wouldn’t be a December post on Harmony Avenue without a subliminal “Sing-Off” reference. This track off the “Songs of the Season” collection released a month or two ago, by the Season 3 champions Pentatonix (you may have heard of them…), is both a fearlessly inventive resurrection of a Christmas carol I didn’t think could ever be this incredibly addicting to listen to, and proof positive of why Pentatonix has a bright recording future ahead of them. It’s the best of both worlds…the rock-solid a cappella sound that Pentatonix fans know and love, and the little additions that enhance the studio-recording experience. (I was delighted to find that this didn’t really fall into the overproduction trap…it’s certainly slickly produced, but in ways that bring out the a cappella element, rather than hinder it.) It’s a forward-thinking, infectious version of the unlikeliest of songs.

And…of course I end up closing my post with a thinly veiled manifestation of my Pentatonix love. Ah well. It’s only fitting. I’ll likely post one more Holiday Song of the Day before Christmas comes upon us, and after that, some end-of-the-year festivities await. I’ll make a “best songs” post much like I did last year (once again scientifically produced by way of iTunes play counts and the like), and also…I’m venturing into the “best albums” field as well! I’ve actually picked, all by myself without help of technology, 15 fine albums released this year that I’d like to proclaim my favorites of 2011. What will they be? Stay tuned in the final days of the year to find out. For now, thanks for reading, and in case this is the only post you get around to seeing while you’re here, a very Merry Christmas (or other lovely winter holiday) to you. 🙂

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