Prime Cuts: Behold the Lamb of God, Overture and I Lift Up My Eyes, Emmanuel
If Laura Story has a soul mate, it's her heart rendering ballads. Not many singer-songwriters can capture the aches and joys of suffering as judiciously profound and viscerally heartfelt as her signature ballad "Blessings." If there is a song written in the last ten years that can defy the constraints of time and trends, it's Story's "Blessings." And on her debut festive album "God With Us," she exercises her mettle again. Here her patented signature ballads abound. They are nestled within her renditions of Christmas hymns and some less familiar seasonal numbers. Production wise, Story has gone all cylinders as she has opted for a more is better approach. The album is complete with intricate songs as a 120-voice choir and a 50-piece orchestra accompanying Story on several tracks. Moreover, she has also enlisted a red carpet of CCM's best artists to appear on the record, two of whom are Steven Curtis Chapman and Brandon Heath.
The album also covers both bases: on one hand, Story is careful to select some of the more familiar carols such as "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Silent Night," and "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus." On the other hand, she has also included some more obscure Christmas offerings as well as her own originals. Let's start with Story's originals: arduous (and older) fans would immediately warm up to "Behold the Lamb of God." Story co-wrote this touching piano ballad with Andrew Peterson some 11 years ago. Bearing all her signature magic with those ivory chops on a grand piano, "Behold the Lamb of God" celebrates Jesus as the "the lamb who takes away the sins of the world." A message that so sublimely captures the essence of Christmas.
"Overture and I Lift Up My Eyes" belong in the same genre where gorgeous orchestrated strings are set as a prelude to "I Lift Up My Eyes" a worship number based on Psalm 121. "Emmanuel," a 2008 Story track, gets revived here. Incorporating the hymn "Once in David's Royal City" into a sunny and buzzing pop track, "Emmanuel" is a modern hymn that gives praise to God for the gift of Jesus Christ. More in line with today's CCM pop is the album opener "Love is Here." Energetic, ultra-busy, and bearing all the elements that make up what constitutes a radio hit, "Love is Here" is bound to light up radio lines this Christmas. Aimed more at the heart is the heavy percussioned ballad "Just Another Christmas" which finds Story prayerfully pleading to God '...don't let there be a moment I've missed, don't let this be just another Christmas this year...'. The song would have been even more reflective if the pulsating drum sound could be tapered a tad.
As far as the more familiar carols are concerned, Story's acapella intro of "O Come O Come Emmanuel" is pure stunning. Just listening to how Story builds "Angels We Have Heard On High" up to a worshipful crescendo with her use of layered voices, explosive electric guitars, and hill-climbing percussion work is indeed an experience. Nevertheless, her somehow lifeless and stiff rendition of "Silent Night" is redundant. The album would have been better off to close off with "Overture and I Lift Up My Eyes." "God With Us," as a whole, would have been an even better record if Story would have eased up on the album's propulsive backing. And if she would let her piano, her voice, and her heart foreground more of the songs, "God With Us" would be elevated from a good album to one that is excellent.