Prime Cuts: Winter Wonderland, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Just Like They Said
Overall Grade: 4.5/5
The birth of Jesus can bring great upheavals. Luke 2:3 tells us that when King Herod first heard about the news of the birth of the Messiah, he together with the whole city of Jerusalem were disturbed. Sara Groves' sophomore Christmas record "Joy of Every Longing Heart," tries to take snapshots of how the news of Jesus' birth has impacted the people of the town of Bethlehem. In each of these 9 songs, she brings us into the narratives of the wise men, shepherds and even the angels as they wrestle with what the birth of Jesus means for them. She jostles our jadedness with the many surprising melodic twists in her renditions of her traditional carols. And she expands our imaginations with her newly crafted narratives in her original compositions.
"Joy of Every Longing Heart" is Groves' second Christmas recording, the follow-up to 2008's "O Holy Night." While the first effort centers upon the story of the Holy family, the nexus of this sophomore effort is on the stories surrounding the townsfolk of Bethlehem. These stories are teased out through 5 traditional carols, 3 original tracks and 1 instrumental. Don't expect Groves to sing the evergreen carols like she is in a karaoke bar. Rather, she re-interprets all 5 of them and weaves her own melodic nuances into each of them. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," for instance, still retains the original's hook and melodic development. But Groves infuses her big piano cum strings balladry touch making it sound more retrospective and reflective. While many a lesser artist will treat "O Come O Come Emmanuel" in a dirge-like fashion, Groves gives it a bright reading quipped with a tinge of metallic-sounding percussion.
Best among her trio of originals is "Just Like They Said." Here the narrative lens is seen through the eyes of the shepherd as they first heard about the birth of the Messiah. Groves' attention paid to the detailing of their emotions and how such revelations are palatable to us are staggering. The jaunty "We Wait" finds us in the shoes of the townsfolk of Bethlehem as they await for the dawning of the Messianic age. The echo-y chorus of the backing vocals is particularly effective as it reminds us that our waiting and longing are never in isolation. The Celtic-sounding "Let Our Gladness Have No End" is an apt album closer as it is a gorgeous worship piece in celebration of how the Christ-child can transform our lives for the better.
All in all, the message of the record is sum up in its album cover. Featuring the town of Bethlehem shaded in nocturnal greyness, the town is being greeted by the dawning rays of the sun painted with orange and red hues Likewise, these songs still tell the story of how these rays of hope still change our lives from darkness to light.