Christmas Chestnuts and Holiday Rocks Print
Music - Feature Stories
Wednesday, 19 December 2007 02:35

Kim Wiseman & Mark A. JohnsonKim Wiseman & Mark A. Johnson, Visiting Old Friends at Christmas

 

This holiday album announces itself with three trumpet blares, and by the time you've checked the case to make sure you haven't made some mistake - Is this mariachi? - the familiar lyrics of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" have clarified what's going on: The CD from Quad Cities vocalist Kim Wiseman and producer/arranger/musician Mark A. Johnson is a modern take on Christmas classics and a few more contemporary songs.

If the prospect of a steel-drum solo on "Rise Up Shepherd & Follow" or a Latin take on "Silent Night" makes you uneasy, this is not a project for you.

That said, Wiseman's hearty readings are frequently stirring. Her instrument is forceful, but she's always in command of it and never showy. The chorus of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is soulful with surprising phrasing, and Johnson's arrangement is light and deft; it doesn't impinge on the song. "What Child Is This?" gets an effectively simple, gentle guitar-and-flute background, and Wiseman is particularly restrained.

Other treatments are more radical, and individual enjoyment will largely depend on your allegiance to tradition. "Christmas Angels (Angels We Have Heard on High)" gets a praise-band treatment, and to these ears it sounds all wrong. (But I don't like praise bands.)

"Mary Did You Know?" and "Breath of Heaven" aren't as timeless as other tracks, but there's less of a disconnect between the material and the treatment.

And some of the reinventions work well. "Do You Hear What I Hear?" gets a rubbery jazz reading - everything is just a little different from what you expect - that emphasizes the words.

And who could argue with that?

 

Visiting Old Friends at Christmas is available at (http://www.brasssail.com).

 

 

Closer Than NowCloser Than Now, The Burden of Daydreaming

 

Catherine Kenniston has a voice that sounds well-suited to ballads. It's expressive and deliberate and clean; she enunciates clearly; and it's not full enough to rise above rough-and-tumble rock and roll. So the best tracks on Closer Than Now's new album are those on which the three other musicians in the band treat the vocals with care.

The Quad Cities outfit will be unveiling The Burden of Daydreaming at RIBCO this Saturday, and the CD gets off on the wrong foot with a straightforward rocker. There's nothing bad about the singing, but it never finds a point of connection with the generic tune, which nearly drowns her out.

The situation improves dramatically on the second track, "Ninety-Two." It's not a wimpy song, but Kenniston has the opportunity to establish a relationship with the instruments - energetic yet dreamy - before the song rocks out. "Water's Edge" gives her an even more relaxed setting - bordering on late-night jazz - and she thrives.

What becomes readily apparent is that the first song was a misstep, and a poor match with the rest of the record. The band is more dynamic and interesting than that rote opener suggested. The frenetic but muted percussion of "So Long" and the triumphant melodies and abrupt shifts of "You Can't Contain Me" give a good sense of Closer Than Now's range, and while Kenniston isn't a distinctive vocalist, she can more than hold her own given the opportunity.

 

Closer Than Now will perform a CD-release show on Saturday, December 22, at RIBCO. The show, which also feature Katalina, starts at 10 p.m. For more information, visit (http://closerthannow.net).