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Home Free

Christmas Vol. 1 (2010)

4.7

February 27, 2011

Tuning / Blend 4.3
Energy / Intensity 4.7
Innovation / Creativity 5.0
Soloists 4.7
Sound / Production 4.3
Repeat Listenability 4.3
Tracks
1 This Christmas 4.3
2 Silent Night 4.3
3 Let It Snow/Winter Wonderland 4.7
4 O Holy Night 5.0
5 Mary Did You Know 5.0
6 Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas 4.3
7 Please Come Home For Christmas 4.0
8 The Christmas Song 4.3
9 I'll Be Home for Christmas 4.3
10 He is Born 4.7

Recorded 2010
Total time: 35:49, 10 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 This Christmas 5
2 Silent Night 5
3 Let It Snow/Winter Wonderland 5
4 O Holy Night 5
5 Mary Did You Know 5
6 Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas 5
7 Please Come Home For Christmas 5
8 The Christmas Song 5
9 I'll Be Home for Christmas 5
10 He is Born 5

The a cappella community — both contemporary and classical performers — has long turned to Christmas music as a way to sell albums. This is fabulous for those of use who are fans of Christmas music and a cappella, although there is consequently some danger for this niche to become oversaturated. I myself find it hard to take any more contemporary pop-singer Christmas albums, a similar genre niche. With that introduction, I was both excited and wary to get Home Free's Christmas Vol. 1 in the mail. I'll spare you the suspense: this is an excellent album and will be a worthy addition to any Christmas a cappella collection. Or, for example, as an introduction to a cappella for someone who just likes Christmas music.

Home Free has a very contemporary sound, fitting right in with other Christmas a cappella albums I have by Rockapella, Acappella, Tonic Sol-Fa and The Blenders. Their intonation, rhythm, and blend are always impeccable. The listener gets a sense that not only does the group have a clear purpose with where it wants to go musically with each song, it has a clear purpose of where it wants to go with the album as a whole. The sound is very polished. If you own and like any of the Christmas albums from those other groups, then this is right up your alley.

But Home Free doesn't just copy what other groups have done; in many of their songs they bring a unique style. Two of my favorite arrangements are Silent Night, with a syncopated drum beat and an "instrumental" Hark the Herald Angels Sing for accompaniment during part of it, and Let It Snow, which is just very upbeat, fast, and fun. Songs that make you smile. To mix things up, the group sings Please Come Home For Christmas and The Christmas Song in more of a doo-wop style. O Holy Night and Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas feature a low bass soloist as another interesting twist. Mary Did You Know and He Is Born are very similar to other a cappella arrangements of the songs I've heard, but while Home Free didn't add too much to these songs, the quality of the singing is still good enough to warrant high marks.

As you can tell, I really enjoyed this album. About the only recommendation that I can give the group is that the packaging itself feels kind of cheap — a cardboard rather than plastic jewel case, and a boring snowflake motif as the artwork. Might want to do things differently for Christmas Vol. 2 — which I'm now anxiously awaiting. But that's a very minor quibble, as this album becomes just the second one I've reviewed where I've given all songs and all categories straight 5s.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 This Christmas 4
2 Silent Night 4
3 Let It Snow/Winter Wonderland 4
4 O Holy Night 5
5 Mary Did You Know 5
6 Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas 3
7 Please Come Home For Christmas 3
8 The Christmas Song 4
9 I'll Be Home for Christmas 3
10 He is Born 5

There's nothing worse than a Christmas album that is full of the same tracks you've heard time and time again. Well, this one is anything but. The creativity the group brings to several tracks is slightly mind blowing. Home Free's first addition to their Christmas album collection is top notch.

Home Free left the true classics alone but took every available liberty with the others. Tracks like O Holy Night and Mary Did You Know have permanently made it onto my iPod as some of my most played tracks. Matt Atwood absolutely kills the lead on O Holy Night. Following O Holy Night was something I didn't quite recognize at first. Killer vp was quickly joined by a grooving bass line, accompanying tight harmonies. The men of Home Free completely revamped the classic choral song Mary Did You Know, bringing quite a bit of funk and soul to the table.

I've always had a bit of trouble getting into the Christmas spirit every year, but this album helped me to do just that. My parents and I enjoyed the pleasure of having this album play in the background as we sat in our dining room, opening presents and chowing down on an early Christmas dinner. Overall, I applaud the gentlemen of Home Free for finding a nice balance between revamping some tracks and doing tribute to the classics. It's a necessary addition to any Christmas collection, and I guarantee that you and yours will enjoy it when Christmas rolls around again.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 This Christmas 4
2 Silent Night 4
3 Let It Snow/Winter Wonderland 5
4 O Holy Night 5
5 Mary Did You Know 5
6 Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas 5
7 Please Come Home For Christmas 4
8 The Christmas Song 4
9 I'll Be Home for Christmas 5
10 He is Born 4

Christmas Vol. 1 is the first part of a two-album Christmas set released by the Minnesota-based vocal band Home Free, and it's an excellent start. The album features some fresh takes on Christmas favorites, infused with R&B, rock and pop, and jazz influences. Christmas Vol. 1 is a welcome addition to a season filled with tooth-rotting string arrangements, bland and insincere vocals, and treacly interpretations.

It's true that Christmas is a time when a cappella arrangers break out the big harmonic guns. When dealing with Christmas songs done to death, it's very tempting to break from the pack with as many lush major seven sharp eleven chords as one can humanly stick into the arrangement. Home Free's Christmas effort is certainly loaded with these harmonic goodies, particularly the Take 6-esque O Holy Night, but it works for the simple reason that these are very good arrangements. When Let It Snow and Winter Wonderland are mashed together as a light-hearted Latin number, it works through the strength of the arrangement. The vocal-jazz opening of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas brings the sublime arrangements of the late Gene Puerling to mind, before it infuses some R&B into the proceedings.

Home Free's group sound flits between the tight background singing of Take 6 and the playful energy of Cadence, and my only complaint is that it sometimes feels like the production is getting in the way of their group dynamic. While the use of studio magic is tasteful and is mostly used to enhance the lush sounds of Christmas music, sometimes the backgrounds seem processed to the point that the wonderful individual voices get lost in the shuffle. But this is a minor complaint that isn't even felt on every song — I'll Be Home for Christmas and O Holy Night have a consistently vocal sound throughout.

Christmas is a time for ballads, and it's true that most of the standout recordings on this album are ballads. Even in the slowest and most mellow ballad, though, Home Free keeps the energy and intensity running through it. The tasteful vp work is one of the reasons for this, of course, but the group's ability to keep the intensity up at all times cannot be overstated. But when Home Free goes uptempo, they don't lose their sound. Mary Did You Know is absolutely fantastic, and Home Free's interpretation will stay in my Christmas playlist for quite some time. There was a moment when I was listening to Mary Did You Know (2:30 for those of you who really want to know) where I paused and had the thought "It's crazy that a cappella music can groove this hard." Home Free has groove down cold.


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