Wed, Nov 21, 2012.
Some Christmas albums are meant to be thrown on at parties and gatherings, almost background music to the real event, the socializing. They have familiar carols and novelty numbers, maybe an original or two, and you don't have to pay close attention to them. That's probably the majority of them, and they'll be a hundred new ones come out this year by assorted stars. I've already received a few, from the likes of Rod Stewart, even the return of Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, for the first time since the Grease soundtrack. These will get more play because of who they are rather than what's on the disc.
The smaller number of new Christmas albums are meant to be listened to as complete works, and instead of being tossed together at a few sessions, are well-thought out, include a higher number of originals, and a lot of care and love. I think that's what we have here from Fredericton pianist, songwriter and singer Becka deHaan. It's called Long-awaited, Unexpected: Songs For Christmas. deHaan has few years of performing and recording behind her, having been in the popular local group Vinyl2bits, before going solo with her first album Wait For the Wind in 2010. That earned her a lot of acclaim in the gospel and inspirational circles. She received nominations for best gospel album at the East Coast Music Awards, and best Spiritual album at the Music New Brunswick awards. And she won the national Covenant Award for best inspirational album from the Gospel Music Association Canada. In addition to that, she was the winner of the first iFactor, a national competition held by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. All in all, a strong debut and breakout.
Making Christmas albums is actually a tough job, if you want to rise above the standards. Since so many people, including tons of big stars do them, you have to come up with something to set you apart. I think what makes this album such a strong set, and something listenable from start to finish, is the quality and choice of material, and some really strong playing. de Haan herself is a talented pianist and performer, and there are some great musicians and arrangements here, everything from tight electric guitar solos to string parts, to beautiful backing vocals. If you want to try to lump this into a category, good luck, other than Christmas. There are originals, vocal pop songs with lovely melodies. There are new arrangements of traditional carols. There's some uptempo spiritual stuff, the old-school stuff that gave birth to boogie-woogie when it got secularized. There's a country-folk number. There's classical, too, the instrumental version of those beloved hymns, Mendelssohn providing the music to Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.
Each of these styles is handled really well, and two things stand out to me. First, the quality of the originals is really high, these are well-writen numbers, no cliche'd Christmas themes, she's not trying to re-write Frosty the Snowman. Instead, these are personal reflections of the spiritual side of Christmas, the magic she truly feels, not some consumer version. Also, deHaan has taken great care, and developed new ideas to mix in the traditional numbers, from carols to spirituals. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is taken at a slow pace, almost haunting, to match the words at the start, the people of Israel in captivity, with only a single keyboard note behind. Then the instruments build as we get to the "rejoice" section, as the author and singer predict the coming of the saviour.
Through it all, deHaan sings wonderfully, especially switching from style to style. This will make a nice Christmas concert, and that's exactly what's coming up; she'll launch the disc Sunday December 2nd, 6PM, at Smythe Street Cathedral in Fredericton. It is a free event, open to the public. And the disc is for sale as well, in Fredericton you can get it at The Lighthouse bookstore, and Tony's Music Box, and on line for all at www.beckadehaan.com
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Bob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).