A Fulfilling Christmas Journey
Posted October 12, 2017
By JJFrancesco_NRT, Staff Reviewer
You probably don't know the name Jonathan Cain as well as other musicians of the 80s, but it's safe to say you know his songs. If you've heard of a band called Journey, you know they had a pretty popular hit called "Don't Stop Believin'" with a piano hook that could readily be called iconic. You can thank Jonathan Cain for that. He co-wrote that hit (and many others) and was Journey's keyboardist starting with the Escape album. Last year, he made the transition to CCM with an under-the-radar faith-filled release What God Wants to Hear. Now he's back with a Christmas album filled with more faith declarations than the majority of other recent Christmas releases could boast.
You won't hear any of the secular Christmas tunes here, and even traditional Christ-centric carols are kept to under a quarter of the album. Most of this album is proud original material, which for a Christmas record is pretty extraordinary. Musically, the album also forgoes a safe traditional Christmas sound for the most part (with the exception of the use of a children's choir, an essential for a Christmas record).
Opener "This is the Heart of Christmas" is a standout, proclaiming what Christmas is truly about with a soft rock musical approach that sets the framework for most of the songs. Vocally, Cain reminds me a lot of fellow 80's rock vocalist John Elefante. "Star of Bethlehem" and "Emmanuel" follow similar formulas, employing effective use of piano and soothing melodies to create some of the best Christmas worship in years.
It isn't until track 4 that we get a "Christmas standard," and Cain's rendition of "Angels We Have Heard on High" is very good, even employing the trendy tradition of adding in a modified chorus. It works well here, particularly in this track. Some of the other carols, however, do feel a bit like an after thought relative to the stronger original material.
"Joseph's Pride" and "Hail Mary" follow the same structure as the other originals and offer beautiful takes on Joseph and Mary, not often given their due in carols. "Hail Mary" pairs well with the preceding "You Shall Call Him." These serve as a refreshing musical treatment for Mary, who is often overlooked or reduced.
"It's Only Christmas When" offers one of the album's more danceable tracks, and it adds a welcome variety of tempo without throwing the whole thing off. The title track is another use of the album's sound done right.
I think if there is a weakness to be found here, it might be "too much of a good thing." By the time we get to the last quarter of the album, the individual impact of each song in the collective album diminishes a bit. Each song is still individually very good and will be welcome additions to many playlists. But in a start-to-finish play through of the album, they may begin to make the album feel a bit long as we get into the double digit numbered tracks. But these are minor caveats to a great album.
This is one of the most commendable Christmas records of recent years. The vocal performance is top-notch, and the melodies are soothing and worshipful. It's also great to see an album with so many original Christmas songs, one that foregoes some of the tired mainstream clichés--and all of this from an artist who gave us some of the biggest mainstream hits of the 80s. Listeners will be glad that Unsung Noel has graced our ears, appreciating the original and vertical offerings it brings.
The Bottom Line: Don't stop believing that Christmas music can be artistically driven, because Jonathan Cain has delivered a fine and much-needed collection of Christmas worship.
Song to Download Now:
"This is the Heart of Christmas"
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