Michael Hill,
My Blue Christmas
(Avalon, 2006)

Singer Michael Hill offers here a selection of 10 holiday songs, and he covers all bases with a mix of secular and religious melodies. Hill served with the U.S. Air Force and performed with its "Tops in Blue" ensemble. Now he works as a worship pastor at a church in Rockwall, Texas. Because he grew up listening to Elvis and used to parody "Blue Christmas" a lot as a youngster, he chose to center this album on that tune. More details about that focus later.

On the popular side, Hill gives us "Here Comes Santa Claus" in a style reminiscent of Elvis. "The Christmas Song" is nicely done as well. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" both include good guitar instrumentals halfway through, provided by Hill's back-up band. Made up of guitars, bass, drums, keyboards and a bit of background vocals, the accompaniment gives Hill's vocals just enough support and is never intrusive or overbearing. "The Little Drummer Boy" follows a calypso beat, and Hill throws himself into the spirit of the rhythm, letting loose and giving it his all. This version is fun to listen to. It could be even more rambunctious in person.

Attending to the more religious music, Hill sings "Silent Night," "What Child is This?" and "The First Noel." For each one, arranger Bob Singleton has added new words or musical phrases, lending an even richer meaning to the original verses. The lyrics are not included in the packaging, so you'll have to listen a few times to be able to sing along with them yourself. But that shouldn't be difficult. Hill has the voice and enunciation of an experienced performer. An extra bonus is a brand-new Christmas song: "Who is This Child?" written by Danny Davis. A poignant melody with simple words, it might be the track you program to play more often than the others. "I heard what the angels said / But looking at him now / I don't see a King of Kings / And I don't see a Lord of Lords / And I don't see a Prince of Peace / Son of God, Son of Man." Hill's baritone borders on emotional tenor as a quiet acoustic guitar flows beneath him. "Who is This Child?" is the kind of ethereal wisp that shows up in the midst of the standard holiday cantata, serving to slow down the pace and give thoughtful pause to the reason for the season. You are sure to find this haunting selection echoing in your mind long after the CD player itself is turned off.

The other song that may stick with you is the title track. Or rather, the title tracks. Imagine liking a song so much you put not one but two versions of it on an album. That's what Hill has done with "Blue Christmas." The CD opener is labeled as the "'50s version." The concluding track is the "keys version." What's the difference? Guitar versus piano. (The word "keys" here refers to "keyboards," not to the Florida Keys. Darn! So much for expecting to be whisked away to an exotic location for the winter.) Hill's vocals for both are exactly the same, and in fact, might even be the same track dubbed into both recordings. The "'50s version" includes guitar instrumentals, and they don't really bring to mind a 1950s rock style at all. The "keys version" has a foundation on keyboards, with one guitar interlude and a second one on the keys. You'd better like "Blue Christmas," because if you program this CD to play nonstop, you'll hear those two versions back to back as the disc finishes and restarts. Guests may wonder if the recording is stuck. Only through careful listening can one discern a difference between the two.

Despite the repetition, My Blue Christmas is an entertaining holiday album that has as its strength not the title track(s), but the church songs, particularly "Who is This Child?" and the Bob Singleton arrangements of familiar carols. This will be a nice pre-season gift for the religious music fan.

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review by
Corinne H. Smith

6 September 2008

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