The Blind Boys of Alabama & Taj Mahal,
Talkin' Christmas
(Sony, 2014)

Well, if you're the type who likes to pick up a new Christmas album every time the season rolls around, you're in luck. If you are especially fond of Christmas albums that contain fine music that can be enjoyed year round, you're in luck again because, man, do the Blind Boys of Alabama with guest artist Taj Mahal have an album for you.

Talkin' Christmas is the real thing. It is a soulful, classic album whose main purpose, according to founding member of the Blind Boys, Jimmy Carter, is to remind us of the real reason we celebrate Christmas; not because of the gifts and the shopping and the incessant playing of Bing Crosby chestnuts, but because we need to be reminded of Jesus's birth.

And, of course, to celebrate the joy that birth brought.

And, man, is this album a joy. A collection of original songs, a few chestnuts, some standards, the disc features a wide range of Christmas and gospel music that is all transformed into the Blind Boys music; whatever they do, they do their way and the result is music that lifts the spirit, downhome traditional gospel music with enough modern flair to satisfy but never too much. By this, their 71st album, the Blind Boys have figured out who they are artistically and they are not going to go against their own identity.

So, how are the songs? "Do You Hear What I Hear" kicks off the album and the sometimes treacly ballad has been turned on its head, into a shuffling upbeat call and response number that will have you dancing. "Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn" celebrates the power of Christmas and the power of Christ in a rural, downhome bouncy, midtempo song that features Taj Mahal's banjo in a dialogue with the piano; it's a song that could have been sung in a juke joint or in a church; it is that much fun, that full of joy.

Then the disc takes a 180 degree turn with "What Can I Do?" -- a gorgeous ballad about the nature of service, of helping our brothers and sisters. It asks when you're down and out, how can I help you? The song states that no matter what time of year, if you call on me, I will be there to help you. All the speaker asks is to be of service. It's a great message, one that can change lives. It's one of those that you find haunting you days after you've heard it and makes you look at the people around you a little differently.

All of the songs are soulful, deeply felt and sung and, since the album was recorded analog, live in the studio, the sound has a timeless. clock-breaking quality to it. "Merry Christmas to You" reminds me of an old Johnny Ace ballad from the early '50s and, by God, that's a compliment.

Talkin' Christmas is a gospel album but you don't have to be a believer to get into it. It brings a lot of pleasure regardless of your orientation. It's good music on any level. And it is probably the best seasonal album you're going to hear this year, but it is much more than that. It's a gift from some incredibly talented people who have your listening pleasure in mind but much more also.

[ visit the artist's website ]

music review by
Michael Scott Cain

22 November 2014

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