07 December 2010


Josh Groban’s Noel a Modern Christmas Delight
By Kristin Battestella

After trying my husband’s ear with one too many old time shrill but flat Christmas records, I broke down and picked up the 2007 contemporary Christmas best seller Noel from singer Josh Groban.  While I’m not one to normally go along with the current pop sensation, Noel is an easy listening holiday delight.

Although it’s usually a conclusion piece, Silent Night introduces Noel and showcases Groban’s unusual baritone and tenor stylings.  The tone of the album is set with this rousing melody- we’re in for an hour of uplifting reverence even if there isn’t a truly fast, swinging tune here.  The fine Little Drummer Boy continues the updated but respectful trend.  Usually played in juvenile or childish motifs or strangely often sung by women, Groban adds maturity and modern personality while holding true to the heartfelt innocence of this timeless tale.  Outside of the old Johnny Cash version, it’s tough to think of a better rendition.

However, I feel bad saying I’ll Be Home for Christmas goes over the top a little too much with the spoken sound bites and military greetings.  The song is sad, bittersweet, and sentimental enough, and the album is certainly already relevant enough without adding more sappy and yet somehow political overtones.  This song also seems a little too easy for Groban, and the arrangement needs to be slowed down since he doesn’t have enough places to hold a good note or two.  Fortunately, the long-winded spirituality is made up in Ave Maria.  I like the old school material but this isn’t Pavarotti or the type of operatic orchestration that is sometimes a bit much to listen to- much less be able to sing along with. Groban hits all the notes needed but keeps the Madonna tune tender on the ear. Generally one doesn’t think of such an important song as background music, but the charming softness here is what keeps this album popular.

NoelI feel as if we don’t hear Angels We Have Heard on High as much as we used to- especially outside of church, but this lovely tune isn’t often included in more pop oriented secular albums simply because it’s a tough cookie to sing.  Soul singer Brian McKnight joins Groban here in a special duet arrangement that layers and smartly uplifts the song without making those ‘Glo-o-o-o-o-O-o-o-o-o-O-o-o-o-o-O-ri-a in Ex-cel-sis De-o’ refrains get out of hand.  Where I’ll be Home for Christmas may have laid the sentiment on a little thick, the original tune Thankful strikes a far better cord of somber seasonal appreciation.  The personal yet social lyrics blend wonderfully with Groban’s range. His near cracking heartfelt delivery adds a tear inducing touch, and because this is a new composition, we’re forced to pay attention rather than just gloss over some of the old carols that we seem to increasingly take for granted.  

Although it’s tough to go wrong with The Christmas Song, this secular tune is again a little too slow in making room for Groban’s long notes.  Perhaps because Noel is dominated by lovely but not so easy to sing carols, it seems as if Groban is meant to be the modern voice of the good old classics.  Anybody can sing The Christmas Song really.  It’s not that this is a bad version, it’s just we already have so many renditions of it.  I’d love to have heard Groban handle another difficult staple like Oh Holy Night instead.  What Child Is This is such a medieval styled reverence that not everyone can sing.  Groban’s music and arrangement sound of the past, but also updated for today- the Johnny Mathis for this generation.  As popular as Noel has become and will continue to be in coming years, I’d like to see another Christmas album from Josh Groban at some point with more lofty carols.

I’m not a country music fan, but I suppose if there’s one person who has the crossover superstar power to match Groban’s vocal, it is probably Faith Hill.  Their The First Noel duet does still have a few notes of needless country twang- Hill can hold the note, why does she need to make that little hick hiccup and quiver where none is required? I much prefer the gospel chorus once they join in and ad-lib the second turn of the song with serious spiritual weight.  As much as I praise Noel for bringing much needed religious tunes back to the secular world, there is absolutely nothing wrong with belting a carol the way it should be belted. Put an Amen to it!

Petit Papa Noel is probably unfamiliar to most in America, but it’s a beautiful French carol nonetheless and Groban nails it perfectly- again giving a deep operatic weight without reminding us that we’re listening to a serious song in another language. It sounds pretty and Christmasey, that’s all that matters.  And really, the French is, in a strange way, understandable on the heart and spirit.  Likewise, we don’t hear It Came Upon a Midnight Clear as often as we used to, and that’s just unacceptable.  It’s refreshing to hear another lovely carol getting the contemporary but no less reverent update from Groban.  You know, I’ve never heard his other albums, and while some may want to follow his discography after Noel, at the same time this album feels like his perfect showcase of voice and soul.

Panis Angelicus adds more of that easy listening international operatic spin.  I know it seems contradictory in some cases to mention opera and pop in the same breath, but Groban’s contemporary arrangements are handled by a powerful yet somehow casual voice. Maybe folks just like his voice and style; maybe it’s the album’s unique mix of the updated blended with traditional holiday classics. Whatever you choose to take away from this seasonal chart topper, it is a dang good holiday listen.  Lastly, my favorite carol O Come All Ye Faithful bookends well with Silent Night and concludes Noel in fine worship-esque fashion. Again, we expect these tracks to be reversed on such a set, but Groban ends with lovely medieval music and devotional choruses.  I would have liked some of the good old Latin, but you can’t have it all I suppose.

Despite a few forgivable hiccups, Noel has increased in sales and popularity for a reason. I’d like to think the album skyrocketed through the charts because it is a largely religious set without some of the heavy handedness or mid-century sounds of traditional Christmas albums.  Then again, it could be the easy pop, soft secular, background music sensibilities.  Whatever your musical style or beliefs, families young and old can enjoy Noel each and every Christmastide.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for that wonderful review! You can hear Josh sing O Holy Night on a CD that came with his In Concert DVD in 2002 I think. It's also on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mtz75NoSsEc

Kristin Battestella said...

Hi Mia! Thanks for taking the time out for the tip. I find myself watching a lot of youtube videos for songs that aren't currently available!

Thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

You're welcome! :)