My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay – ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’

in the bleak midwinterI loved Brennen Leigh’s new Lefty Frizzell album, so I had high hopes for her Christmas album, a duo effort with Noel McKay, a singer-songwriter she has worked with before (although it wasn’t my favorite of her past projects). Most country albums mix up traditional carols with modern religious tunes, sad country songs given a seasonal setting, and secular festive fare – with the latter tending to get the lion’s share. Unusually, this album focuses solely on carols, making it less suitable for your Christmas parties, but a good choice for devotional preparation. The arrangements are tasteful and subdued, with carols one is accustomed to hear belted out by a choir or congregation stripped back down to the bare essentials.

Unfortunately, I admit that I was disappointed on first listen. Brennen sings lead on almost all tracks, with McKay on close harmony. At first listen, much of it lacks vitality, coming across a little too polite and respectful on tracks like ‘Good King Wenceslas’, and the pitch sounds slightly off on the opening ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’. However, repeated exposure revealed a subtle quiet beauty to the record as a whole. Nothing on the album is what one might call upbeat, but a song like ‘Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus’ sounds positively dreary if the listener is not in the right mood. But close attention bears soothing reward.

A slow, sincere ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ with mimimal instrumentation fits the song well, bringing out its poetic simplicity. A reflective ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ has McKay’s voice to the fore, for a change, but is also touching. McKay also takes the lead on a nice understated version of ‘It Came Upon A Midnight Clear’.

‘The Holly And The Ivy’ is delicately subdued and sounds much as it must have done when brought over to America by the early colonists and sung in remote households. ‘O Little Town Of Bethlehem’ is also rather lovely in this simple acoustic setting, and the closing ‘O Come All ye Faithful’ is also gently subdued compared to its more usual treatment.

My favourite track is a lovely, melodic reading of ‘The Friendly Beasts’, a charming story of the animals present at the Nativity.

I think since it focuses on the original Christmas story I might have resequenced it so it is in chronological order, with the carols not actually retelling the story at beginning or end. However, this is a very interesting project. As suggested above, it’s not the record to play for getting you in a good time Christmas mood, but it’s just right for the quieter moments in the run up to Christmas.

Grade: B+

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