Seamus Kennedy,
Goodwill to Men
(Granshaw, 1996)

Seamus Kennedy's Goodwill to Men is a lovely addition to my collection of Christmas music. ... I know I'll be playing Goodwill to Men frequently during the season.

The vocals are the point of this album, with the instruments accompanying Kennedy's singing rather than being of interest in and of themselves. That said, the arrangements and instruments do this very well. Kennedy's rich and friendly voice brings these mostly familiar songs a welcome warmth that's perfect for this time of year.

In perhaps its only similarity to the excellent gothic Christmas CD Excelsis 2, Goodwill to Men begins with a setting of the Gregorian chant "Gaudete." Kennedy's version is a capella, with three voices singing only the repeating chorus of the chant. It's obviously much more authentic than the other version, especially rhythmically, and while it lack the punch of the other, it's a beautiful start to this album.

"Shepherds Arise" and "The Holly She Bears A Berry" are other traditional songs done a capella.

The second song Kennedy calls "an Irish Calypso Christmas carol," "Mary's Boy Child." I've always liked the song -- and Kennedy's version is the best I've heard. The Arbie O! All-Star Calypso Conga and Steel-Drum Band deserve some of the credit for their exciting and energetic conga and steel-drum accompaniment setting off Kennedy's voice. "The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy" has a somewhat similar sound, without the calypso band, and it's interesting to hear how well that effect is achieved with more traditional instrumentation.

"Goodwill to Men" (words by Kennedy set to a traditional tune), "Think of Somebody Out There" and "Giving Your Love Away" are modern carols, with a theme of bringing the Christmas spirit to the community around you. "Bread and Fishes" turns a medieval English legend about the Holy Family into a lovely and touching song in a modern folk style.

Other familiar songs on this CD are "O Holy Night" as an instrumental (the only one here), a Latin/English "Adeste Fideles/O Come All Ye Faithful" and a wonderful dual version of "Away in a Manger" that includes both the Irish and American melodies to which the words are sung. The album finishes with "Auld Lang Syne," to which the liner adds footnotes in case Robert Burns' Scots dialect is confusing.

There are several Irish tracks on this CD, too. "An Chéad Nollaid/Oiúin (Silent Night)" blends a poem written by Kennedy (spelled in the Irish way in the credits) with an Irish Gaelic translation of "Silent Night," followed by the English version. The spoken word piece "The Mortal Sin" involves a grievous misuse of 12-year-old Jameson's Irish Whiskey, and it's followed by "Miss Fogerty's Christmas Cake/The Cook In The Kitchen," a vaudeville humor song I originally heard at the Christmas Revels, blended with a traditional jig. "Jogging Along With My Reindeer" isn't traditional itself, but has a cheerful Irish music-hall sound and a Father Christmas theme.

The only song that doesn't really work for me on this CD is "Scarlet Ribbons," a song popularized by the Kingston Trio that I remember from my youth. Perhaps it's these memories, though, that make it strike an odd note for me in this context. It's a touching song, though very sentimental, and Kennedy sings it very nicely.

Come Christmastime, I plan to play this often. It will go nicely with some of my Christmas standards, and it also will blend well with some of my Celtic CDs, many of which are mostly instrumental. I think Goodwill to Men would be a welcome addition to most Christmas music collections.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]

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