City On A Hill: It's Christmas Time, the third entry in the series, gathers all of the usual suspects along with several newcomers for the series' first holiday entry. And while it doesn't stand out as something unique and different, as the previous City albums have, it doesn't disappoint, either.
The now-familiar formula -- community worship in a rich, warm, acoustic setting -- still works as beautifully as ever, under Steve Hindalong's faithful production. After the brief call to worship ("I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day," performed entirely by chimes and bells), the project's entire roster of artists comes together to perform the warm & fuzzy title track, a new composition by Hindalong and Terry Scott Taylor, who also appears. The various players trade off lead vocals throughout the song; it works better than you'd expect.
Sixpence None the Richer is up next with a new arrangement of "Silent Night," followed by Taylor on another Hindalong/Taylor original, the light & airy "Holy Emmanuel." Caedmon's Call turns in a suitably acoustic "Babe In the Straw," which sounds remarkably like a Caedmon's original, even though it was written by Hindalong and Derri Daugherty. Sara Groves makes her first City appearance on "Child of Love," proving herself a natural for the series.
Jars of Clay contributes the self-penned and recorded "Bethlehem Town," which sounds as if it might have come right out of their Eleventh Hour recording sessions. Third Day is backed up by Derri Daugherty and Julie Miller on "Manger Throne," and as usual, Third Day's contribution to the album turns out to be one its most memorable. Miller and Daugherty keep things flowing with a creative arrangement of "Away In A Manger."
Out of Eden offers the series its very first r&b track, a vocally-intricate "Do You Hear What I Hear?" Paul Colman Trio gives a soothing performance on the traditional carol, "In the Bleak Midwinter." A slightly upbeat, acoustic "O Holy Night" rounds things out, with a duet by Michael Tait and Sixpence's Leigh Nash. It doesn't reach the near-operatic proportions that other vocalists have given this quintessential Christmas classic, but it's nonetheless an enjoyable way to end the disc.
What surprised me most about It's Christmas Time is how this entry focuses primarily on single artist performances, with very few of the "community" artist duets and group performances that the series' previous albums have shown. But it still succeeds because it keeps the focus on the amazing reality of Christ's entrance into the world as a baby. Santa Claus, Frosty, Rudolph, and all of the other pop culture Christmas icons are nowhere to be found; this is a record about Christmas' true meaning, and it never once loses sight of that.
Album cover courtesy of Essential Records.
By Robin Parrish