It's that time again (seems to happen earlier each year) and while many shop until they drop, their ears likely are assailed with holiday muzak or worse in malls and department stores and retail outlets the world over. While I remain a fan of many traditional holiday standards, a real need exists for new collections that are innovative in presenting the "same old same old" fare (how many times can we burn holiday compilations for friends without boring them to tears).
Happily, the a cappella vocal quintet has taken on this challenge admirably with Comfort & Joy, their second and perhaps best Christmas album. They deliver a collection of standards as well as originals, all presented in Rockapella's inimitably spirited fashion (due largely to Scott Leonard's arrangements). There is a purity to the production, a simplicity in using voices as instruments to make these songs seem new and appealing.
Rockapella manage to balance tempos along with mood, mixing reverence with playfulness in this 12-song collection. They open with Scott Leonard's "Little Mary Snowflake", a buoyant song that mixes dreams of holiday gifts with a promise of friendship in troubled times. Tenor Leonard also contributes a jazzy urbane new classic called "This Christmas Day", from which the CD's title is derived. This is quality song-craft, holiday song or no.
Yet most impressive all-around is the Leonard original "Snowstar". This is Rockapella doing best what makes them truly original -- tremendous tempo changes, great vocal percussion courtesy of Jeff Thacher, and superb harmonizing.
Equally impressive is the Jeff Thacher original "Peace on Earth". Here Kevin Wright's vocal lead is perfectly matched to the beautiful material. Another original composition (co-written by Kevin Wright) is the impressive "Love and the Lights", though I have to confess an odd longing for a cup of Folgers after listening to this one.
You get to realize the true beauty of a song like The Carpenters' "Merry Christmas Darling" when presented in a cappella fashion.
On the traditional side, there's "Home for the Holidays" that features a vocal instrumental middle bridge of "trombocals" (inspired by Glenn Miller), along with a verse sung by baritone Elliottt Kernan and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" featuring a solo by bass singer and newest Rockapella member George Baldi (and what a lovely voice he has). This straightforward arrangement is quite well done, as is that for a lively re-examined "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree".
Perhaps the most amusing song here is a cover of the Elvis classic "Please Come Home for Christmas", wherein Scott Leonard provides mid-song banter recounting holidays past guaranteed to bring a smile to many.
Also here is a playful rendition of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (relying heavily on George Baldi's basslines and Jeff Thacher's percussive sounds) and a renewed version of the Disney classic "It's a Small World" that should please children of all ages.
The vocal talents of Rockapella's five members is put on fine display with Comfort & Joy, a CD that provides a good amount of both and comes in a nice package with lyrics and pics of the guys hanging around Grand Central Station. Keep this wonderful CD in mind as a last-minute holiday gift or even as a nice addition for the personal collection. You can use it for inspiration before heading out caroling, or merely as a nice way to invigorate that stack of standards you play while trimming the tree.