Sugarland’s Christmas album was released in full last year, with five of the tracks repeated from an EP sold exclusively at Wal-Mart with purchases of the band’s Enjoy The Ride in 2007. The material is evenly divided between Sugarland originals and more familiar fare, and a mixture of secular and religious aspects of Christmas, often within the same songs. Jennifer is in excellent voice throughout, with Kristian Bush given a higher profile than usual, and the production (by Byron Gallimore and the band) is Sugarland at their most restrained and mellow, with most tracks acoustic. Every inclusion here feels carefully chosen and executed; this is no casual Christmas cash-in but a fine album in its own right.
‘City Of Silver Dreams’ opens the album with a gentle, dreamlike ode to New York at Christmas time rather reminiscent of Mary Chapin Carpenter, written by the duo with Lisa Carver and folk singer-songwriter Ellis Paul. ‘Little Wood Guitar’ was written by Kristian with Ellis Paul, and is a musician’s look at her life through the lens of three atmospherically conveyed Christmas Days: a childhood gift of the eponymous guitar which sets her on her path in life, struggling young adulthood, and finally with a family of her own.
‘Coming Home’ is a jazz-blues number with a gospel choir chorus which is extremely well done, but not my personal cup of tea. The soothing title track has a subtle string arrangement (and quote from ‘The First Noel’ alongside its comforting vision of a contemporary Christmas scene), and Kristian gets a few lines to sing alongside Jennifer’s lovely lead vocal.
He also gets two actual lead vocals on this side project. He is unimpressive on ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’, with Jennifer offering a counterpart of snippets from ‘Winter Wonderland’ (sounding more invested than she does on the official cut of that song); this is the least effective track on the album, although the bells make it sound cheerily festive. ‘Maybe Baby (New Year’s Day)’ is much better, a very enjoyable bluesy country-rock ballad written by the duo with Troy Bieser, about a man returning home for the Christmas season and reflecting on the possibility of seeing his ex-lover. Kristian doesn’t have the best of voices, but at least on this track it has a gravelly soulfulness which works well.
Of the traditional material, Jennifer delivers serious versions of the carols ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ and the beautiful ‘Silent Night’, which she sings partly in Spanish. Both have tasteful acoustic arrangements, the former (one of my favourite tracks)with twin banjos, the latter featuring Kristian’s mandolin. A rather pedestrian vocal take on ‘Winter Wonderland’ is redeemed by the playing in the instrumental break with its nod to ‘Deck The Halls’.
The playful ‘Nuttin’ For Christmas’ (one I hadn’t heard before) has Jennifer playing the part of a naughty little girl (and not sounding too bothered at getting no presents as she recites the litany of her misdeeds), and the playing is great.
I have a limited tolerance for Christmas albums, so many of which tend to sound the same and repeat the same songs, but this was an extremely pleasant surprise for me. It might even be my favorite Sugarland album.