Prime Cuts: Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, Count Your Blessings, Oh, to See Christmas
Fans have secretly (and some a little more audaciously) wished JJ Heller would record a Christmas album. She has a pure crystalline voice akin to Jewel that can bring out the frolicking fun of making snow angels in the season's pallid beauty. Yet, she also possesses a smoky sophistication of say a Diana Krall that can bring out the romantic charm of sipping egg nog over the fire place. Finally, Heller's debut Christmas effort "Unto Us" is upon us. Rather than reinventing the wheel, the album, with its gorgeous use of strings, piano, and a jazzy undertone, harkens back to the sepia tone days of those Christmas records created by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald. This is thanks to producers Brown Bannister and Ben Shive. Both of which have had the repertoire of making some of music finest releases including classic albums by Amy Grant, Andrew Peterson, Brandon Heath, Steven Curtis Chapman, Paul Overstreet, and CeCe Winans.
Out of the 13 tracks, 10 of which are yuletide classics with the remaining three being originals. In an effort to stay clear from an overindulgence in a cheesy sound-fest, the covers are deftly chosen: from the religious-themed Christmas hymns to the melancholy tilted seasonal ballads and a few frolicking sanguine kickers. Of the Christian carols, "O Little Town of Bethlehem" has some killer piano backings that saves this Joseph Scriven hymn from predictability. Utilizing restrain and her breathy vocals, JJ Heller coos life into dirge-like tune of "O Come O Come Emmanuel," giving this hymn a second life. Though not overtly a Christian song, "Count Your Blessing," a song about being grateful even in the midst of life's trials, has so much spiritually truth that it deserves to be placed on repeat.
Sounding like one of those drop-dead gorgeous songs lifted out of those old Disney movies is Heller's rendition of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." With the use of a haunting choir and lots of spacey piano notes, JJ Heller adds a ruminative tint to "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" that is just therapeutic for the soul. "I'll Be Home for Christmas," a song written during the war when soldiers were separated from their loved ones over Christmas, has an investiture of melancholy that is often not honored by many lesser artists. This is not so with Heller. She takes her time to sympathetically nuance the forlornness of the tune that truly sends shivers down your spine.
Now, let's get to the three original songs. The title cut "Unto Us," a co-write between Heller and her husband Dave, is quite typical of Heller's folkish ballad; pleasant without being exceptional. "Christmas is Here" is a call to worship augmented with the beautiful sounds of bells, wintery wind, and choir. As much as Christmas is a reflective time, it is also a fun time for the family. The country-tinged "Oh, to See Christmas" captures such a joy perspicuously. It's a song that will bring smiles to those who have wide-eyed kids at home who can't wait for the advent of Christmas day.
Nevertheless, the pride of this record resides in JJ Heller. She sounds at ease and seems to enjoy every moment of this recording. Whether it's a serious worshipful song or a melancholy Christmas ballad or a joyful festive celebration, she inhibits the characters of her songs. In short, JJ Heller is made to sing Christmas songs and "Unto Us" is the evidence.