An Entirely Too In-Depth Review of a Vintage MoTab Christmas Album: “This is Christmas”

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This album is the best of times (category, Christmas music) and also somehow the worst of times.  It is beautiful, soaring, heart-breaking, and bonkers.  I love it.  I have loved it for over 20 years.  It is the soundtrack to my season.  It is also now available as a Mormon Tabernacle Choir “Legacy Series” on itunes for $9.99.  So, you too can now bliss out to vintage MoTab greatness.

First off, some disclaimers.  This album has pretty bad sound quality.  It just does.  This is part of the “worst of times” rating.  It also has some really embarrassing audience participation (that always makes me laugh) in the last song…but more on that later.

Okay, let’s go track by track….

Track 1:  Deck the Halls.  This is not my favorite track–it is perfectly adequate but not as special as some other pieces.  But it does signal a few things for us.  It signals that the symphonic accompaniment for the whole album is ambitious and fun.  It also signals that whoever was doing the arrangements and music choice was possibly drinking the gentile egg nog.   This is classic MoTab, with a twist.

Track 2:  Lullaby Carols.  Listen to this.  Listen to it over and over again.  I have never heard a more poignant arrangement of carols that evoke the sweet but heartbreaking beginning of Jesus’ life as the child of a poor, rejected mother forced to give birth in a stable.  This is the music that will remind you of Christ in the creche.  I love this.

Track 3:  Bell Carols.  Do I like this?  I don’t know.  I have been listening to it for more than two decades and I still don’t know.  It is a strange mashup of “Ding Dong Merrily On High” (a jaunty tune) with the evocative “Carol of the Bells.”  I guess I give the first part a solid “meh” and the second part an enthusiastic thumbs up.  What does that equal?  I wobbly thumbs up?  I don’t know.  Listen to it.  Tell me what you think.

Track 4:  Processional Personent Hodie.  Before listening to this album, I was unfamiliar with this song.  Apparently it is a carol dating back to 1582, and roughly translates to “On this day the earth shall ring.”  You can read a bit about it on the wikipedia page here.  This is a prime example of the genius of this album.  The arranger has managed to make it sound like the soundtrack of a classic hollywood movie set in ancient Egypt, and it works!  This is the track that drew me into the album and told me “this is something special.”  It’s a bit crazy, but crazy beautiful at the same time.

Track 5:  La Virgen Lava Panales.  This will be your new favorite Christmas song.  I promise.  It is gorgeous.  And whoever the soloist is at the beginning deserves all the praise.  Maybe we can make a bloggernacle miracle happen.  Do you know who is singing this?  Is it your aunt Edith?  Your grandma Edna?  If so, let us know in the comments.  And then call her up and tell her that she’s been making me happy every Christmas for 20 years, so thanks!

Track 6:  Jesu, Son Most Sweet and Dear.  This is a great track, but I think it’s poorly placed in the album.  It is too similar in mood to the preceding track that outshines it.  I would have moved it down between tracks 9 and 10.  But it’s nice.  Give it a listen.

Track 7:  O, Come, all Ye Faithful.  Snore.

Track 8:  Carol from an Irish Cabin.  This song belongs in the same category as tracks 5 and 6–and kind of defines why this whole album is so different.  Some really great music choices, done very well.  A bit unfamiliar.  Evocative.  Definitely within the mood arc of the overall album.  I like it a lot.

Track 9:  Tambourine Noel.  Okay, this is bonkers but fun.  I love the use of tambourines as a unique, but kind of zippy and appropriate choice to highlight on this unusual album.  But the choir starts doing this onomatopoetic chant of “tim tippy tim tippy tim tippy tim” in the middle of the song that is weird.  It makes me think of “Tiny Tim” from Dickens drinking from a tippy cup.  Also, the tempo is too slow throughout the song.  If you’re going to tambourine, rock out with it.  It’s a weird little song.  My 10 year old just walked into the room while I was playing it with a face that suggested she smelled something funny, but she was laughing.  And that sums it up.

Track 10:  Angels We Have Heard on High.  Perfectly adequate vintage MoTab.  Belongs on a lesser album.

Track 11:  Away In a Manger.  I hate this song.  I hate all versions of it.  It’s insipid.  I also hate it on this album.

Track 12:  Fum, Fum, Fum.  A short little highlight of another unusual historical Christmas carol.  The arrangement is especially fun, with a piccolo mimicing a darting little bird.  I like it.

Track 13:  I Saw Three Ships.  It’s a good arrangement of a Christmas Carol that makes no sense.  Why should we care about you looking at ships on Christmas?

Track 14:  A Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas.  And this is it.  The grand-daddy of tracks on this weird, wild, beautiful album.  It is a gonzo celebration aimed at classical music nerds.  Every verse is set to a classical piece from a different era in chronological order.  We start out with a Gregorian chant, move to polyphony, baroque, classical, romantic, and wind up with twelve drummers drumming to John Philips Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever.   Did you ever think you’d listen to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” as part of your Christmas album?  Me neither, but now you will.  Nutcracker?  It’s in there.  It’s all in there.  It is marvelous.  It is wacky.  It is beautiful and crowd pleasing and bizarre.  And it winds up with a crazy, kind of embarrassing, but rolicking crowd participation at the end where the Mormons in the Tabernacle make believe they’re in the New Year’s Pops audience and clap along during an ovation.  Just go for it.  Listen to the whole twelve minutes and twenty-six seconds.  Try and identify the pieces representing each era.  Ignore your kids when they yell for you to turn it off.  Just enjoy the heck out of it.

And there you go BCC readers.  Merry Christmas!

 

Comments

  1. La virgen lava panales: Yes, I’ve always liked thinking of Mary washing the diapers! (and the water laughing).
    I saw 3 ships: Why does it need to make sense? It’s a goofy, joyous, harbor celebration of the arrival of returning ships, all mixed up with a variety of nonsensical references to the nativity.
    Thanks for the review.

  2. Monica Jensen Call says:

    My husband and I were in the orchestra that performed on this album. (I was in the cello section and he was the tubist.) We both agree about the less than wonderful sound quality. It’s puzzling considering that we had the very best recording engineers on the job. We musicians had all sorts of jokes about some of the songs. “Jesu, Son Most Sweet and Dear” was “The Dorm Pianist Song”. During a rehearsal one of my cello friends did an impromptu dance to the “Tambourine Carol” with a tambourine around her neck that had us doubled over with laughter. Most of the orchestra was made up of musicians from the pit orchestra for Ballet West, and we were so happy to be away from playing “The Nutcracker” marathon two blocks away from the Tabernacle. Imagine our horror the first time we played through the “Eleven pipers piping” and discovered that we were playing the “Dance of the Reed Flutes” from “The Nutcracker”. We couldn’t get away from it anywhere! The actual concerts were fantastic. The energy in the Tabernacle was off the charts. You’d understand the clapping and laughing on the recording if you’d been there. Every time I listen to this CD with all of its minor faults I’m instantly returned to the stage in the Tabernacle and enjoying those delightful concerts. Thanks for reviewing this CD.☺️

  3. Monica! I’m so happy you commented! Thanks so much for making music that I love. Yes, there are some minor faults…..but it really is a glorious album. I hope my affection came through in the review. Merry Christmas!

  4. I just listened to it. I am in awe. The Emperor Waltz made me laugh out loud.

  5. Those weird old carols that mix up the Nativity with random stuff are my favorites, so I love “I Saw Three Ships.” My favorite, though, is “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” which is most easily accessible on the album “Bright Day Star” by the Baltimore Consort. Try it out and see if you can make sense of it.

  6. I do happen to know the soloist: Jane Fjeldsted. A fine musician. I agree with your thoughts on her solo.

  7. And yes, I will relay to her your appreciation.

  8. Kathy Wilson says:

    Marvelous review, thanks for your opinions. I have some different ones. First, The audience is not limited to Mormons, anyone and everyone is welcome and many are non Mormon. The whole concert has an international theme covering centuries and the music was selected to reflect that. La Virgen, Fum, Fum, Fum and Tambourine Noel (by the way, the word is tin, not tim, imitating the tapping of fingers on the tambourine) are Spanish, Angels We Have Heard on High is French, Away in a Manger represents Germany, (Mack’s arrangement is simple but not insipid. This is my opinion–it is still one of my favorites😊.). Carol from an Irish Cabin is still one of my favorites and I’ve never heard it anywhere else ever. It was recorded live so we have to live with the flaws. I have all the Tabernacle Choir Christmas albums since then and this is still my favorite. I gained some new insight from your review and appreciate your opinions even where I disagree. If we all had exactly the same tastes the world would be very dull. Also, Jane Fjelsted is a beautiful person as well as a talented singer. Thanks again for your review and Merry Christmas.

  9. I needed something to listen to today as I wrap presents, so thank you for the recommendation! The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is at its best when it sings kookier selections. I found an old cassette tape in a missionary apartment in Japan of their 1990 album, Curtains Up!, where they sing a bunch of old Broadway numbers. I used to know exactly how long to hit rewind on my little cassette player to listen to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” on repeat.

  10. gotauschajo says:

    Oh this is delightful. You pulled me right back to my high school and college years where my parents would play this daily at holiday times, and music teachers reused these arrangements. I was delighted to re-review it this morning after reading your exceptional all-to-thorough assessment, and I’ll add my notes below:

    – For years, I thought “Tambourine Noel” *I* thought they were singing about someone’s uncle who had a bit too much egg nog. “tipsy uncle Tim…”

    – The soprano who opens “Angels…High” sounds like she is trying to sing it while strapped to one of those early-era infomercial “exercise” machines. You know, the ones with a strap to your waist and it just jiggles all the fat? Or singing during an earthquake. Or while sitting in the back of a pickup truck driving along a really long gravel road. With a flat tire.

    – While your disfavor of “Away In a Manger” is wholly valid, coming from a singer’s perspective (one who’s required to sing this carol no fewer than seven dozen times during any Christmas season) this arrangement is likely the most favorable to sing. (Thanks Bro. Mack!)

    – Regarding the musicological beast… On behalf of all choirs today and in perpetuity throughout the universe, I apologize to every holiday audience subjected to witnessing the monster that is this song. I sang this very arrangement in my college choir in 1997, and most rehearsals I was unable to sing it. Not because it surpassed my musical ability, but because I was unable to see the sheet music due to tears dripping from my eyeballs and excessive involuntary jovial belly shaking (not unlike the soprano and infomercial exerciser, but this time due to laughter). It is SO MUCH STINKING FUN TO SING. It is a PURE, self-serving, musicological inside joke among music-history-buffs, classical music teachers, and all their subjected students.

    And deliciously awesome.

  11. I wasn’t familiar with this album before this, but I’ve enjoyed reading others’ memories, especially Monica Jensen’s insights.

    I suspect the musicological journey is something I would appreciate if it weren’t the Twelve Days of Christmas. I can’t stand that song. Even in a musicological journey.

    Thanks for this fun post, Karen.

  12. Karen, thank you for your kind words re: “La Virgen.” It was a joy to sing, surrounded by the rich sound of the men’s voices. I had been in a very recent auto accident, and my voice felt a bit shaky, but other than that… :) My feet were broken and shoes were impossible, so I wore my fuzzy slippers, and they surrounded my feet with poinsettias so they wouldn’t show!

    Merry Christmas to you!

  13. Jane, what a delightful surprise and pleasure to have you comment here. Let me reiterate what I said in the original post. Your beautiful solo has been balm to my soul for such a long time. Thank you a thousand times. (And I’m in awe you shared your gift with us when you were in such pain.). Merry Christmas!

  14. Jane I’m sorry your feet were broken but I love the fuzzy slipper anecdote! It just gives the music even more life.

  15. Jane Fjeldsted

  16. Karen, I think you should do a monthly “entirely too in-depth” music review series for BCC.