A New Voice of Christmas| Posted November 15, 2016
Peter Hollens has amassed an impressive YouTube following of nearly 1.5 million subscribers based primarily on one key factor: his voice. The acapella artist has created unique, captivating arrangements of songs in areas ranging from movie soundtrack to traditional folk to pop, usually utilizing nothing more than his own voice layered in complex harmonies. Those pure vocal tones have most recently been applied to Christmas classics with A Hollens Family Christmas.
With A Hollens Family Christmas, Peter offers a significant dose of his classic acapella sound on tracks like previously heard "Mary Did You Know" and the haunting "What Child Is This." Although the precisely layered vocal harmonies will delight and intrigue acapella buffs, the arrangements also shy away from becoming so technical that the average music listener can't connect to them. "Carol of the Bells," a song that traditionally lends itself well to the acapella format, displays that balance beautifully. The vocally full "O Come O Come Emmanuel" may even have you forgetting the rich sonic swells are built by the human voice alone.
Peter Hollens does not restrain himself however to the expected and safe. Highlight track "December Song" comes in two versions on this album, one acapella, one with piano and strings filling in the musical backdrop instead of multiple vocal parts. The version featuring instruments actually allows Hollens' voice to shine in a way the other tracks do not, showcasing a purity and clarity of tone. "My Grown Up Christmas List" is another moment where his voice gets some accompaniment. Peter's wife Evynne, an accomplished acapella singer in her own right, lends her voice to the song originally popularized by Amy Grant.
The Bottom Line: Peter Hollens has created in one package an acapella album that will appeal even to those who are unfamiliar with that musical tradition and a Christmas album that feels both classic and decidedly current. With A Hollens Family Christmas, Hollens takes his place alongside Pentatonix as part of a new generation of vocally-driven holiday classics.
Song to Download Now:
"Carol of the Bells" (Get it on iTunes here.)
Timeless in execution and message| Posted December 05, 2016
The NBC a cappella talent competition reality TV show, The Sing Off, was a big success for the music world--and, for our purposes, the Christmas music world. Because of that show, we not only have chart-toppers Pentatonix, who won the second season of the show, but we also have one-man vocal show Peter Hollens, whose career was launched by The Sing Off.
While his videos have been viewed a quarter of a billion times, there are still people just getting to know this Oregonian musician. And a great introduction to what Hollens and his community of supporters--deemed the Hollens Family--comes with his first-ever Christmas release, A Hollens Family Christmas.
Fans of Hollens know his repertoire is comprised of well-known pop songs, niche songs of nerd lore (such as pretty much everything associated with Tolkien), choir boy ballads and even an original song every so often. The trend holds with his Christmas release.
The record finds itself stylistically between the aforementioned Pentatonix and balladeer Josh Groban, yet offers a sound that is different enough from those artists to stand out in its own right.
From the beatbox-happy midtempo reimagining of "Little Drummer Boy" (featuring another big YouTube a cappella star, Mike Tompkins) to a massively layered rendition of "Carol of the Bells," there's not an instrument in existence Hollens won't try to replicate with his own mouth and voice. And he does it well.
Besides the obvious (and well done) go-tos like "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "What Child Is This," Hollens digs into the larger library of holiday tunes in order to paint a larger message of love, joy and peace with this album, featuring songs such as "Grown-Up Christmas List", "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" and the song made popular by Groban on The Polar Express soundtrack, "Believe."
But it's Hollens' one original song on the project that is the definite stand-out--and not just because it's the only track he has ever done backed by actual instruments. "December Song" delivers a powerful embrace of the best parts of the holiday season, and invites us all to keep our hearts centered on what matters, asking in the chorus, "Why can't we just hold on to silent nights, holy nights and angels singing lullabies / And Heaven and nature singing goodwill to all." It's powerful lyrically, vocally and musically, as a choir of Peters crescendos the song to its emotional apex after a bridge taken from "O Come All Ye Faithful."
And if you're missing the a cappella aspect, Hollens also includes the song arranged with just voices.
"Amazing Grace" is the penultimate song on the record--the only non-Christmas track on the project, proving this project is about more than just creating a songbook for the holidays. Featuring some of the guys from country/a cappella band Home Free--some more alumni of The Sing Off--the heartfelt, stripped-down, key-changing rendition will bring ya to CHURCH, y'all! But more importantly, it finishes the overall theme of peace, joy, forgiveness, goodwill and everything that Christmas--the birth of Jesus--represents. It's a warm sugar cookie at the end of an album full of comfort food.
Look, the formula here is pretty simple when you think about it, but it works beautifully: Take a loveable song, unleash Hollens on it by producing every vocal part, every instrument, every percussive sound and everything else needed, and enjoy the ride. There's so much going on sonically that it's easy to find something new to love with each listen.
Hollens has said A Hollens Family Christmas is his most important work to date, a collection of which he's the proudest of his career. And the reason for that is evident in the messages of the songs: in a world as divided and conflicted as ours is, we could all use some hope, even if in musical form.
A Hollens Family Christmas is a definite go-to for years to come on my holiday playlist, not just because I'm an a cappella nerd, but because of its timeless nature, its beautiful message and its jaw-dropping sonic complexity.
Full disclosure: I had the amazing opportunity to know Peter Hollens in college, and to sing in the a cappella group he formed at the University of Oregon, On the Rocks. I'm aware of his incredible musicality, love of the medium, and incredible work ethic! That said, that connection didn't influence the evaluation of this project. Perhaps my a cappella homerism does, though! If you want a second opinion, go check out Mary Nikkel's review of this project, too.