Following her 2012 Christmas album debut, soulful pop artist Francesca Battistelli returns with her second full-length holiday outing, titled This Christmas. Not unlike the kinds of presents often found under the tree on the morning of December 25th, This Christmas is diverse, varied, and fun. Francesca makes the album feel like a family affair--from featuring her children on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," to including a bouncy romantic ditty in "Christmas Valentine," and sending up reverent worship in "Behold Him" and "Messiah." This Christmas is a well-rounded representation of the holiday season.
"Silent Night" kicks off the album in both a traditional and worshipful way. I've always found this to be one of the more beautiful spiritual classics, and Francesca gives it a vintage vibe by adding background vocals straight out of something you'd find on your grandparents' vinyl records. Personally, I grew up with the soundtrack of Christmas being the likes of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Percy Faith, Mitch Miller and Spike Jones (among others), so any contemporary renditions that manage to recapture that spirit are huge wins in my book. After recreating a Nat King Cole feel with "Silent Night," Francesca returns to a sound fans know her best for on the jazzy and fun "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" She continues this sound with a wonderful take on "Sleigh Ride" before slowing the proverbial sled down for the worshipful "Behold Him." The only problem I find with modern worship Christmas songs is they often merely sound like the usual radio worship outings, with a lyrical leaning toward Jesus as a baby. Penned by Batistelli, Jeff Pardo and Molly Reed, "Behold Him" is a lovely song thematically about our Savior, no doubt, but it doesn't feel the least bit Christmassy, and merely seems present to fill the need for something for radio and Sunday morning services in December.
"Snowy Day" is something completely out of left field as Francesca sings the Boyz II Men song a cappella with a gospel sound, which her voice fits perfectly with, showcasing her versatility. A classic Bing Crosby, Judy Garland vibe is captured with Francesca's version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," for which she enlists the help of her five children to sing along. Arguably, their voices don't mesh quite as well with the classic styling of the song, but it gives Francesca's rendition an especially sweet and personal feel. If you've ever heard any of Dave Barnes' wonderful Christmas songs, the first listen to "December We'll Remember" may have you reaching for the liner notes to see if he was involved in the writing process. Sure enough, Francesca teamed with Barnes and srtist/producer Ian Eskelin to pen this fantastic number, and it's easily an album highlight. Eskelin teams with Francesca again to give "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" the ballad treatment, before Pardo and Reed join her again for another highlight in the fun and romantic "Christmas Valentine." Another song I would have sworn was penned with Barnes, "Christmas Valentine" is a lovely little fireside love song that offers fun lyrics like the especially memorable, "Santa take the night off cuz Cupid's got it under control."
The title track is a faithful update of the 1970 Donny Hathaway and Theresa McKinnor song. Francesca pulls off the jazzy number quite well (rivaling Ayiesha Woods' excellent rendition from 2009), and thankfully ditches the quirky "shake a hand" line from the original, which always felt out of place in the song to me. (Perhaps it also seemed ironic in our current "no-contact" social distancing state, but I digress.) Mia Fieldes and Seth Mosley team with Battistelli for another fun original, "Carolin'," before we get a new "remastered" version of Francesca's "Marshmallow World" cover from her 2012 album. To close the album, the focus is appropriately placed once more on the birth of Jesus with "Messiah." Penned again by the trio Francesca, Pardo and Reed, it's a lyrically beautiful song that can't be dismissed for its intent, but musically falls prey to the modern worship sameness that saturates the present day CCM radiowaves. It doesn't even remotely bear a Christmas sound, but, at the same time, puts the focus on the true reason for the season with lyrics like those found in the chorus, "Messiah / Messiah / A baby born to save us all / Messiah / Messiah / On our knees we fall." It feels tailor-made for Christmas worship services, but loses a bit of the spunk and spirit Francesca established in the tracks before it. It's a shame, too, because with so many songs already sounding and feeling just like this one, a seasoned Christian music listener has to wonder what the song might have sounded like if the decision was left entirely up to the artist. Curiously enough, following the song, we're given an instrumental version of it, as "Messiah (Orchestral)." This version plays out just a bit better (and more fitting, musically, for the season), but ironically lacks both the spiritual message and Francesca's lovely vocals.
When all is said and done, Francesca Battistelli's This Christmas is a worthy addition to the Christmas music annual rotation. (And bonus points for the fantastic cover art that reminds me of a sunnier Harry Simeone Chorale The Little Drummer Boy or the Burl Ives Rudolph soundtrack.) Her takes on the classics, coupled with fun and spirited new originals, beg for this album to be played on vinyl while sitting by the fire (or trimming the tree!) with a cup of cocoa and loved ones near. If you've grown weary of hearing the same Christmas songs over and over, definitely check out album highlights "December We'll Remember," "Christmas Valentine," and "Carolin'," otherwise definitely give this whole project a spin this Christmas.- Review date: 10/24/20, written by John DiBiase of Jesusfreakhideout.com
Record Label: Curb / Word Entertainment
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