23 December 2009

Casting Crowns' Peace on Earth

Peace on Earth Packed with Sentiment and Revelry.
By Kristin Battestella

I’d heard of Casting Crowns and their chart-topping rise on the Contemporary Christian Music scene over the past few years; so in this year’s Christmas music escapades, I picked up their 2008 holiday CD Peace on Earth. Listeners yearning for a more soulful and spiritual Christmas sound will definitely find it here.

I must confess, I’m not a major fan of the Contemporary Christian stylings or its heavier Christian Rock subset. I suppose I’m old fashioned in that I like my hymns to be hymns and my rock to be well, rock. It’s horrible to say, but Casting Crowns also doesn’t look like a Rad! Rock! BadAss! Group, and some harder listeners might not like them solely because of it. But of course, the pendulum swings the other way, too. Someone who looks like Marilyn Manson but sings about Jesus just seems amiss in the mainstream mind. I have been to some Christian concerts where the swaying and lighters and heavy guitars mixed with alter calls just seems too bizarre and exclusive to be genuine. Perhaps some Christian Rock bands are better than others are, for most of Peace on Earth isn’t on the bizarre end of the blend.

Peace on EarthCasting Crowns waists no time with I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day, and for my money this hit single might be the best track here. This old poetic carol isn’t recorded enough, and band helmsman Mark Hall adds a heavy spin here. This is a beautiful ode with December charm, but it’s not without its dark and thinking, depressing lyrics and low notes. Usually a little somber itself, Oh Come All Ye Faithful has a fine harmony, blending the ladies of Casting Crowns with some old fashioned guitar work. It’s an odd choice to make this carol almost a duet version; but it also makes its new, unique, and special. I think some folks forget this one nowadays, and I sincerely protest, since it’s my favorite!

Sometimes Joy To The World isn’t played as joyous as it could be. Christmas is meant to be a happy occasion, and the rendition here reminds us of the joy of Undeserved Grace indeed. Personally, I don’t care for some of the updated ad-libbing and rock out endings that come with a lot of upbeat modern Christian music-if a carol has stood for three hundred years, it probably doesn’t need your new vibe to appeal to younger audiences. Nevertheless, Casting Crowns is happy about their Savior-reminding us we should be, too.

While You Were Sleeping, however, takes the opposite stance. Instead of praising Bethlehem with the traditional carols, Hall effectively rips the town a new one for its ignorance of Christ’s humble birth. When the song turns its criticism to modern America, it’s a little too political yes, but scarily accurate in highlighting the new millennium’s favoritism of a secular Christmas. Harsh words, but it’s also a veiled nudge at the plight of many a Christian then and now. Peter denied, Thomas doubted, and as John says, ‘the world knew him not.’ More than anything, this song reminds me of Jesus’ own words of being ready and always on the watch for his return ‘lest he find you sleeping’. Maybe I’m getting a little preachy here, but often I, too, must yell at myself to ‘wake up’.

The traditional reverence returns for Silent Night, and this quiet and beautifully delivered standard is a delight no matter how you do it. Unfortunately, it does seem a little lost between Casting Crowns’ original songs and makes the album feel somewhat uneven. God Is With Us is also slow and reverent, but it’s decidedly modern. Can you pull off an album of mixed leads and mixed styles such as Peace on Earth? God is With Us and While You Were Sleeping have touches of why I don’t like much Contemporary Christian music. You get the feeling Mark Hall sings raspy and rockish because he can’t really sing anything heavier. Then again, Megan Garrett and Melodee Devevo sing shrill and high, therefore they must be good. These extremes perhaps do well for Casting Crowns because fans can choose which lead they prefer. However, mainstream music aficionados might scoff, thinking that these folks can’t sing and that we have to be nice because they are singing from the heart about God. Yes, Casting Crowns gets you on the ‘it’s the thought that counts’ and the guilty religion card, but here it’s the lyrics not the delivery that win out. The spiritual words should be received, even if the musical delivery isn’t what you’d prefer. If Britney Spears could really sing, why does she do all those dang quivers and over dubbing echoes? At least there’s spiritual substance here.

Away In A Manger is pretty enough, but again the mixed leads, hip ad-libs, and guitar work seem amiss. You can’t go and change the tune the kids are singing. It’s not really a nice listen when you expect a song to sound one way and hear it another. Thankfully, Christmas Offering combines the soft reverence with Casting Crowns statement making style. The arrangement fits all the voices, the lyrics tell the Nativity tale and instruct us 2,000 year removed folks in how we can still take part in its Miracle. By default, Peace on Earth probably strives for too much to be Casting Crowns’ best album. However, the skill and reverence is there for the contemporary fans.

Sweet Little Jesus Boy is a little too much like Away in the Manger and While You Were Sleeping, but better the focus is on the Christ child on a Christmas album, don’t you think? I like many of the old traditions that were adopted into our current Christmas celebrations-the Christmas tree, Nutcrackers, Yule logs. Unfortunately, I’m coming to despise the current bend toward a secular and commercial Christmas season. People don’t mind deluding themselves and their kids with Santa and expensive but meaningless gadgets and gifts. But oh me oh my the moment someone puts a little religion into December 25 everyone groans and rolls their eyes. I feel like a prude for my recent animosity towards Kris Kringle-as well as my split decision on most of the Contemporary Christian movement-but what’s wrong with Casting Crowns having their swaying, feel good Christian Christmas music? Absolutely nothing!

When I read up on Casting Crowns, I was a little surprised to see a house violinist in the band, but Melodee Devevo has her spotlight with the instrumental O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. After all the statements and politics on Peace on Earth, the lack of vocals here is a refreshing conclusion to the set. The somber, beautiful strings speak for themselves and harken back to a magical medieval Christmas time where music was a rare treat of sound and soul.

As much as I prefer a traditional, religious Christmas, there are songs here that seem purely Christian and not necessarily Christmas carols. It’s great to have a truly spiritual album, but there’s not a lot here for a party sing along or a light holiday drive. Nay, some fine traditional carols are absent from this set in favor of original, statement making material. Peace on Earth makes you stop and listen. It’s celebratory, yes, but also incredibly serious-too serious for a passive December soul. Fans of Contemporary Christian Music or Spiritual Rock no doubt know and love this album, but mainstream Christmas music fans should skip this if they don’t like a taste of Christ in Christmas. Folks looking for a generic album of secular standards won’t find any here. You have plenty of ‘PC’ songs and practices; let the reverent families and friends have Peace on Earth.

No comments: