Two Thousand Years of Christmas
(Dragonwine, 1996)

If you like a little vocal variety in your holiday season, Trilogy's 1996 recording Two Thousand Years of Christmas is a good place to find it. The three vocalists -- Cathy Miller, David K and Eileen McGann -- blend their voices together very nicely in a wide array of seasonal tunes ranging from the ancient "O Magnum Mysterium" to the very modern "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." The biggest failing here is the name of the album.

Given the grand scope suggested by the title, I think I expected something even more diverse. The trio makes a leap from courtly carols from the Renaissance to contemporary bluegrassy tunes like "Light from the Lighthouse" and "Tonight is for Christmas." But, with only a few exceptions, there's very little between those two extreme ranges.

According to the brief liner notes, the album is taken from the trio's musical stage show of the same name. Since all three have individual touring schedules for most of the year, they usually reserve December for touring together and performing this show. The show, the notes explain, includes more tunes as well as stories about the ancient origins of modern holiday customs. Three of the CD's 17 tracks were recorded live; the rest were recorded in the studio.

The first half of the album is devoted primarily to European -- primarily English -- traditions. In short order, the spirited trio sings their way through tunes like "O Magnum Mysterium," the English carols "Down in Yon Forest," "Gloucester Wassail," "Coventry Carol" and "Who's the Fool Now," as well as "Dona Nobis Pacem" from 16th-century Palestrina, the medieval "Cherry Tree Carol," the early 19th-century "Brightest and Best," and "Huron Carol," a 17th-century tune by St. Jean de Brebeuf, described in the liner notes as "the most famous Canadian Christmas carol."

All nine tracks take full advantage of the threesome's excellent vocal abilities. (They sing as a trio on all but "Cherry Tree Carol," which is an Eileen solo.) The tunes are sparsely arranged, usually featuring either unaccompanied vocals or a bit of bouzouki (David), bass (David) or guitar (Eileen). "Dona Nobis Pacem" is a particularly lovely piece, rendered a capella with harmonic qualities which will grab your attention away from any other distractions.

Then you hit track 10, "Light from the Lighthouse," a traditional American spiritual with a distinctly old-timey arrangement on guitar, mandolin, dobro and bass. It's good if you're in the mood for that sort of thing, but it hit me like a bucket of cold water after the magical "Dona Nobis Pacem" which preceded it.

Things continue for a while in the folk/country vein, featuring original songs "Tonight is for Christmas," a countrified ballad by Cathy, and the contemplative "Turn It Around" and exuberant "Rejoice! Rejoice!" by Eileen. Eileen also contributes the lively "Snow Shanty" -- based on the popular sailing song "South Australia," the words have been rewritten to express the average North Canadian's frustration with heavy snow and its impact on commuting.

Other contemporary tunes on the second half are "New Star Shining," a song about homelessness; "Christmas in the Trenches," a true and touching tale about the Christmas truce during World War I, featuring Cathy's solo vocals and guitar and David's whistle; and "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," the Dr. Seuss favorite which, while it doesn't replace the original recording in my heart, gives it a swingin' beat flair which made the old favorite new again. The "mystery trumpeter" who plays "mystery trumpet" on this track deserves a medal.

There's not a bad tune on this album. So what's the problem with it? Well, the title led me to expect a broader range of diversity, something covering a greater scope of the evolution of holiday music. But Two Thousand Years of Christmas (which covers only a few hundred years, really) is rather sharply divided between carols from the Renaissance period and folk songs from recent memory. And the transition between old and new is so sudden and unnatural, it's hard to imagine how parts one and two ended up on the same recording.

OK, so it's a valid quibble, but I'll get over it. Perhaps I'll just train myself to play tracks 1-9 and 10-17 at different times, and count it as two separate albums. For, one album or two, Two Thousand Years of Christmas has a grand collection of music for the holidays.

[ by Tom Knapp ]