Bruce Kurnow,
Holidays in Harmonicaland
(Switchback, 2005)

A collection of holiday songs performed on harmonica might at first sound like a novelty album, something to play along the "barking dogs" version of "Jingle Bells" and the endless revisions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas."

Instead of playing for novelty value, Bruce Kurnow draws on harmonica's blues and bluegrass heritage to create a haunting collection of hymns. Stripped of words and given only the expressive voice of the harmonica, the eloquence of familiar carols is reinforced. The high lonesome sound of bluegrass echoes in his "Silent Night," evoking the clear empty night that would have been the home of the song's shepherds. "I Saw Three Ships" maintains its question and answer pattern through the force of rhythm. "The First Noel" and "Hallelujah Chorus" gain some earthy familiarity without losing any of their grandeur. Kurnow's harmonica gives "Angels We Have Heard on High" the power of a steam locomotive and a truly exultant nature rarely heard in the usual vocal delivery.

Kurnow's music isn't always perfectly showcased. The recording process leaves a few tracks with a certain hollow sound or a faint echo at odds with the warmth and energy of Kurnow's performance. But these minor issues are easy to ignore, and hard to even remember when the three ships come sailing in on waves of blues and the sugar plum fairy starts to boogie. Joyous and solemn, Holidays in Harmonicaland is the perfect soundtrack for those holy nights.

by Sarah Meador
24 December 2005

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