Elizabeth Mitchell’s latest release, The Sounding Joy, is one of the best holiday themed records to come along in a very long time. It is an absolute must for anyone that is tired of all the mainstream cookie cutter holiday compilations churned out by the music industry’s major names. Audiences will notice first and foremost from this compilation that unlike all of those mainstream cookie cutter holiday albums, Mitchell has included only a small handful of holiday standards on this record. The remainder of her album is comprised of songs that by and large, audiences won’t recognize. This is the most important factor in this album that listeners will appreciate. Once listeners allow themselves to do so, they will also appreciate Mitchell’s performance of the songs. Anyone that is a fan of folk and bluegrass will enjoy Mitchell’s adaptation of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s long lost songbook. This leads to a third and equally important aspect that completes this package. The third factor in question is the bonus booklet included with the compilation. It includes an in-depth story of how this compilation came to fruition. Together with the songs chosen for this compilation and Mitchell’s take on those works, it all makes The Sounding Joy a Christmas album that listeners will want to make a standard in their own home every year.
The most important aspect of The Sounding Joy that listeners will appreciate is the fact that it only has a small handful of holiday standards. This is out of twenty-four total songs. Those classics are ‘Joy to the World.’, ‘Silent Night’, ‘The First Noel’, and ‘Christmas Day In The Morning’ (or as most people call it, ‘I Saw Three Ships). The remaining songs compiled for the collection are ones of which most listeners have likely not heard. The standards that were included are just as enjoyable as the compilation’s other songs. That’s because Mitchell didn’t follow the standard formula with those songs. She actually made them her own. One doesn’t typically connect ‘Joy to the World’ with bluegrass. But somehow, it worked. The most noticeable aspect of this song that listeners will catch and enjoy is the song’s strong harmonies. Just as interesting to note is that Mitchell notes in the bonus liner notes that it was her daughter, not her, that sang the lead. She notes that she had become so accustomed to singing the harmony throughout her life, so she asked her daughter to sing the lead. And the fact that she, her daughter, and her band mates performed the song in its entirety instead of just a portion makes it even more enjoyable. It’s so rare for popular music artists to perform certain Christmas carols in their entirety. So to hear this song in its entirety and in a not so typical form just makes it stand out even more as one of so many high points on the record.
The same elements that made ‘Joy to the World’ made the cover of ‘Silent Night’ just as beautiful, if not more so. The gentle harmonies and subtle guitar part will bring a tear to any listener’s eye. The guitar part wasn’t just a random choice either. Mitchell offers listeners a short history lesson on the song in the album’s liner notes. She explains how the very first composition of this song did indeed include an acoustic guitar part along with dual vocals. That is exactly what listeners get here. They get the song as it was originally meant to be heard. There were no flourishes or frills. It was just Mitchell with (possibly) her daughter once again, and a guitar. It is pure musical beauty in its simplest form. And it isn’t the only one like this, either.
Audiences that enjoy ‘Silent Night’ will enjoy just as much, Mitchell’s take on ‘The First Noel.’ If one were to listen to this song without knowing it was Mitchell, they would swear that they were listening to Sarah McLachlan. Mitchell’s voice has that same tonality about it. And that’s not an entirely bad thing, either. And once more, the harmony part is there, too. That harmony set alongside the musicianship of flautist/pianist Kirsten Jacobson makes the song even more beautiful. Interestingly enough, the piano part that takes center stage on this song was inspired by Ruth Crawford Seeger. Again, this was stated in the album’s liner notes. And those liner notes are the finishing touch to an album that again is one of the best holiday themed records to come along in a very long time.
Having noted the songs culled for this record and the musicianship of all involved, the album’s liner notes are the last portion to examine. The liner notes included in this album are and especially important portion of the whole presentation in that they are not just liner notes. This has already been noted a handful of times. The notes about each song aren’t all that make these liner notes important. Mitchell also includes an in-depth story of how she came to be in possession of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s songbook in the first place. She also includes the full story of how this album came to life. It’s quite the eye opening learning that while the record was recorded during Spring, it was actually first conceived in November, after she had undergone a specific surgery. She notes that she had asked herself what was one thing she wanted to do. She wrote, “I asked myself, after this surgery and recovery, what would I really like to do? The answer was that I wanted to make a Christmas record. We started recording that year and have worked on it sporadically since then.” It should be included here that she states the record actually had been in the works for four years before its release. Mitchell goes on from here. Her story is rich and increases the value of the record even more. The same should be said of Mitchell’s thoughts on Seeger, too. This in mind, and the impressive sequencing and general overall musicianship presented in this record, it is definitely a record that any fan of the holidays and holiday music will love. It is available now in stores and online. It can be ordered online directly from the Smithsonian Folkways website at http://www.folkways.si.edu/elizabeth-mitchell/sounding-joy-christmas-songs-ruth-crawford-seeger-songbook/childrens-american-folk-holidays/music/album/smithsonian. More information on this and other releases from Elizabeth Mitchell is available online at http://www.facebook.com/elizabethmitchellandyouaremyflower and http://youaremyflower.org. To keep up with the latest sports and entertainment reviews and news, go online to http://www.facebook.com/philspicks.wordpress.com.