An Album To Successfully Capture That Spirit of Christmas
Posted November 19, 2013
By JJFrancesco_NRT, Staff Reviewer
Christmas is the time for year for being with the ones you love, and also for listening to your favorite artists try their hands at Christmas music. It's one of the few times where songs covered by hundreds of artists before can still have a fresh outlook and mainstream appeal.
It's become almost a right of passage for an artist to release some sort of Christmas album or EP after so many years active in the biz. Every autumn, we're flooded with the latest entrants, producing mixed results of classics and forgettable money grabs.
While many artists are doing these releases quite early in their careers, sometimes you find an artist who has been doing this for quite a while, and yet only now is getting around to a Christmas recording. And so is the case with John Schlitt, whose new, fan-funded release, The Christmas Project, is finally seeing the light of day.
John Schlitt is something of a legend in the Christian rock world. Taking a 180 through Christ from a destructive drug-driven secular rock life, he soon found himself stepping into the vacated role of lead singer for one of the premier bands of the Christian rock movement, the iconic Petra. For almost two decades, Schlitt provided the arena rock vocals that helped define that era of the band. Yet, neither before nor during the Schlitt era, did Petra have a legitimate Christmas release (beyond a single song on an early album).
Thus, when Schlitt announced that he was starting a Kickstarter to fund a Christmas project (and later had it fully funded), it promised to offer at least a glimpse into what a Christmas release from the legendary band might sound like, even if it was technically still a solo project of one of its lead singers.
The album starts off intriguing with a cover of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus." For a few seconds, you might get the impression that Schlitt's going to throw us a curveball and give us a fairly traditional "safe for your Grandma" rendition. Then a few seconds later, Schlitt's signature arena rock power storms into the song and takes it to a new level. While there are a few moments where Schlitt is clearly stretching his vocals a bit to hit some of the song's demanding higher notes, the track as a whole is a rock-up and revitalized version of the classic that appropriately sets the tone for what you can expect from this album.
One of the issues with many Christmas releases that I have is the lack of original material in favor of covers of classics that don't really offering anything new or memorable. At first glance at the selection from this album, one might fear it'd fall into the same category. Luckily, the unmatched and recognizable Schlitt style is on full display almost the entire time, and thus these classics feel energized and amped up in a way that most modern covers never even aspire to. Schlitt offers some above-average renditions of several classics, from an orchestrated "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," to a stripped down, piano-driven "What Child Is This," to an appropriately subdued choral take on "O Holy Night." While the aforementioned are clearly highlights above other traditional cuts, there's not a weak offering to be found as Schlitt keeps things interesting at all times. There's intricate piano backings, orchestral string elements, and of course a lot of slamming guitar fun. What more can you really ask for?
Of course, few Christmas albums are complete with only traditional offerings. Thus, Schlitt adds two more notable entries into the 10-track listing. The first is a cover of a somewhat lesser known original of the season, Ray Charles' "That Spirit of Christmas." While not the staple of holiday radio airplay that many other classics have become, the song is still arguably a memorable part of the culture's annual Christmas traditions, due to being featured in the movie, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.
Yes, this is a cover of that song playing while Clark is watching old home Christmas movies on the door of his attic. Schlitt's rendition is faithful and safe, but due to the song not being overdone like some certain other Christmas hits from a few decades back have been, it's a refreshing and welcome addition. It also wields some of the stronger and more nostalgic lyrics of originals of decades past, "Listening to a children's choir / Singing songs about Jesus / The blessed way that he came to us / Why can't it remain / All through the year." Overall, this turned out to be a fitting choice for Schlitt to cover and it's good to finally hear some artists venturing outside of the popular "safe" choices.
Tucked in at the second-to-last track is the album's sole (but increasingly obligatory) original, "What Christmas Needs To Be." The song strikes a solid balance between sounding fresh and contemporary and yet still possessing a classic vibe. The title's obvious theme about getting Christmas back to what it really should be is fitting and plays out in an honest and straightforward way. Lyrically, the song offers a relatable longing for simpler Christmases, "It's Christmas now / the gift of heaven given / love can be found / in every heart that hears it / a baby crowned / the hope of our salvation… / is what Christmas needs to be." It's a worthy message, and one worth repeating in our increasingly hyper-secularized culture.
John Schlitt's first Christmas offering is the picture of a success. It offers rocking covers of classic carols, a solid original, and a revitalized take on a lesser-known classic. It keeps the listener engaged with cinematic and nostalgic musical directions, and never veers off into filler. And most importantly, it keeps Christ the focus throughout. While not technically a Petra Christmas album, Schlitt's vocals have become so intertwined with the band's last two decades that it's easy to see this as close to what a Petra Christmas album could've sounded like. Still, regardless of his ties to the past, Schlitt's an artist that has enough presence to make an impact on Christmas music playlists across genres. Whether you're a fan of his past work or not, this is definitely a Christmas release worth your ears this Christmas season, and Christmas seasons to come.
Song to Download Now:
"What Christmas Needs To Be" (Find the song/album on iTunes here.)
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