Album Review :
Smalltown Poets - Smalltown Poets Christmas

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Artist: Smalltown Poets
TitleSmalltown Poets Christmas
Label: Friendly City Records
Release Date: 11/1/2011
Reviewer: Joshua Hedlund

Tracklisting:

  1. O Come O Come Emmanuel
  2. In The Bleak Midwinter
  3. In The First Light
  4. O Little Town of Bethlehem
  5. St. Nick is Alright
  6. Silent Night
  7. Good Christian Men Rejoice
  8. Hark the Herald Angels Sing
  9. We Three Kings
  10. On Christmas Day (Ave Maria)
  11. Angels We Have Heard on High
  12. The First Noel
  13. His Delight
  14. We Wish You A Merry Christmas

Do you remember Smalltown Poets? You know, that pleasant little Christian pop/rock band from the turn of the century that quietly sneaked out on a hiatus seven years ago? Well, they’ve suddenly returned, and they want to sing you Christmas carols.

Smalltown Poets Christmas was co-produced by former drummer Matt Goldman, who is more famous these days for working with bands like Underoath and the Chariot. The album picks up where the band left off on their last studio album, It’s Later Than It’s Ever Been, which showed the guys taking a more layered approach to their songs. The new album kicks off with “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” which may be the most epic thing Smalltown Poets has created to date, featuring copious layers of bells, strings, and background vocals, mixed in with “Carol of the Bells” snippets and a closing segue way into a verse of “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

The band continues to reveal their creative side with clever renditions of lesser-known carols like “In The Bleak Midwinter” and “In The First Light,” both of which feature stunningly catchy background vocals, among other things (did I mention the banjo?). Michael Johnston’s recognizable lead vocals have lost none of their power, either. The great thing about most of these arrangements (I won’t spoil them all for you) is that they retain enough of the original melody to feel familiar while surrounding them with enough new structure to feel fresh and exciting at the same time.

Throughout the album the band convincingly straddles the line between a relaxed, acoustic kind of pop similar to old Jars of Clay and an upbeat piano kind of pop similar to The Afters or The Swift. Most characteristic of the latter style is the bouncy “St. Nick Is Alright,” originally inspired by a piano piece written by keyboardist Danny Stephen’s son, and punctuated by horns and a key change. “His Delight” is a brief tribute to the band’s classic stripped-down style. And the third original track, “On Christmas Day,” doesn’t really fit in either box, as it’s based on Bach’s Prelude in C Major with the traditional Ave Maria sung by Eric Sturniolo of the Georgia Boy Choir.

There are a couple teaser interlude tracks that are only a minute long, but the entire album runs past forty-three minutes. It closes out with a friendly round of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” that sounds like it was recorded in your living room with a lot of friends and family singing along and chatting in the background and just having a great holiday time together.

Overall: True to the band’s sound but awash in creativity, Smalltown Poets Christmas is everything you want in a Christmas album (well, at least it’s everything I want). It’s got a smart selection of both familiar and unfamiliar traditional carols cleverly arranged together with a few originals mixed in, and it’s all capped with a sense of fun that evokes the joy of the holiday spirit. The band enjoyed modest success with Christian radio last time around, and we hear they’re making plans to record another full-length. This album shows they’ve got the power and talent to go any direction they choose now, whether it’s exploring the vast indie landscape or treading the radio-friendly route taken by The Afters and The Swift or something else entirely. One thing is certain: this album is a great new beginning.

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