17 December 2010

The Gift (2002)

Song and Spirit Makes The Gift Worthwhile
By Kristin Battestella

GiftI’m not a country music fan by any means.  However, I have enjoyed a Kenny Rogers song or two over the years, especially his collaborations with The Bee Gees- namely the 1983 album Eyes That See in the Dark and its best selling duet with Dolly Parton, Islands in the Stream. When my mother gave me the 2002 CD re-issue of The Gift, I was really only interested in one song, Rogers’ duet version of Mary, Did You Know? with Wynnona Judd- also one of the few country singers who can belt it and rock out with the best of them.  Although I would have preferred a more traditional set of carols with Rogers’ easy style and raspy voice, The Gift is a fine Christian Christmas album for youth and young families or an easy listening and reverent holiday party. 

Oft covered in recent years, the Mark Lowry contemporary hit Mary, Did You Know? is given a wonderful spin here thanks to Kenny and guest vocalist Wynnona Judd’s powerful rendition. Though not envisioned as duet as we often think of sappy alternating love songs, the duel arrangement works beautifully and captures both the somber softness and big ideals addressed in these lovely lyrics.  The heavy implications and powerful melody are both sing along and inspiring, and I suspect this double whammy combination of wonderful words and hard hitting vocals is what’s keeping this tune in increasing popularity.  After all, we can’t all sing Ave Maria the way it should be sung.  This version of Mary, Did You Know? also headlines the 2007 country Christmas compilation Mary Did You Know?: 17 Inspirational Christmas Songs From Today's Top Country Artists.

Though dating back to 1996 when The Gift was first released, A Soldier’s King takes on new meaning now as we spend another holiday season with servicemen and women overseas.  This original and touching story of a soldier’s religious revelation is a little country and casual, yes, but its simplicity is timeless and most definitely relatable.  By contrast, Pretty Little Baby Child adds a tropical feel to The Gift.  Its island, un-Christmas like sway does seem a little out place, but the cute sing-ability and innocent lyrics here are a lot of fun for the kids.  Rogers reminds us we are at a birthday party for a babe, who can dislike that?

What A Wonderful Beginning further experiments with the musical sounds while delivering the Christmas message.  The choir backgrounds add weight to Kenny’s easy speaking range.  Perhaps others can sing a lot better than he can, but instead of being lost in a high and held note that might overtake the lyrical meaning, we are in a way forced to listen to a little holiday sermon, Gambler style. Though these are new and largely unfamiliar tunes, the reverence and Old Time Religion still strike a cord.  The gospel-esque It’s The Messiah continues the spiritual trend. Again even if the different stylings make The Gift seem a little uneven, the message comes through loud and clear. When you hear material like this, you wonder how one could possibly celebrate a secular Christmas with no belief structure behind it. 

Rogers changes things up some with I Trust You, focusing on soul searching instead of the meaning of Christmas.  Again, this doesn’t necessarily sound like a Yule song, just a wholesome Christian diddy.  Sweet Little Jesus Boy also slows things down with a cappella reflection and more gospel-esque notes.  Perhaps Kenny isn’t going for a particular musical theme or style here, but in some ways, it doesn’t really matter.  Regardless of the arrangement of each track, the songs here were clearly selected for their sentiment over pop chart ideologies and aesthetics.  The irony is that because The Gift came from the heart, the album has been a seasonal success.

Next Kenny Rogers touches upon the classic carols with this lengthy fifteen minute The Chosen One Montage.  This meat of The Gift includes The Chosen One, Away in the Manger, O Holy Night, Silent Night, The First Noel, We Three Kings, and Joy to the World interlaced with spoken dialogue of the Christmas Story.  Perhaps some of the kids singing and speaking is a little hokey, but again, what’s wrong with kids talking about babies, lambs, and Christmas? Isn’t that what it’s all about?  Naturally, these carols vary in style and tone, so the set does as well.  However, it is nice to hear the traditional December treats we know and love.  Go ahead, you know the words, just close your eyes and sing.

Til the Season Comes Round Again concludes The Gift in fitting sentimental fashion.  Though not a heavily orchestrated track, you get the feeling Kenny means what he says as he sings this little ode to you and yours.  It is true that some folks only see each other once a year, and amid all the traffic, gifts, and hustle and bustle, we might forget how important we and our beliefs are to each other.  The Gift reminds us to take time this year and the seasons to come.

It’s not full of super country twang, but The Gift keeps the contemporary reverence and simple spiritually at the forefront of its slightly short 45 minutes without being heavy handed.  While the opening duet of the album is without a doubt the star here, Kenny Rogers fans and others looking for a soft country Christmas album can enjoy The Gift in more ways than one.  Readily available in stores or for download online at very reasonable prices, there’s no reason not to share in The Gift this Christmas.  Despite its country packaging, this is a polite, simple little album reminding us of the true meaning of Christmas.  The Gift indeed and amen!

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