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Spirit

Un-Plugged Holiday Music (1998)

3.2

November 21, 1999

Tuning / Blend 4.2
Energy / Intensity 3.0
Innovation / Creativity 2.8
Soloists 3.6
Sound / Production 3.4
Repeat Listenability 1.4
Tracks
1 I'll Be Home For Christmas 4.0
2 An Evening In December 3.6
3 Grown Up Christmas List 3.2
4 Because It's Christmas 3.0
5 Mary, Did you know 3.2
6 Away In A Manger 3.0
7 Snowfall 4.0
8 It's Always Been About Love 2.8
9 It Must've Been The Mistletoe 2.4
10 No More Blue Christmas 2.8
11 Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree 3.0
12 Santa Baby 3.2
13 What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? 3.4

Recorded 1998 – 1999
Total time: 44:35, 13 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 1
Tracks
1 I'll Be Home For Christmas 4
2 An Evening In December 4
3 Grown Up Christmas List 3
4 Because It's Christmas 3
5 Mary, Did you know 3
6 Away In A Manger 3
7 Snowfall 5
8 It's Always Been About Love 3
9 It Must've Been The Mistletoe 3
10 No More Blue Christmas 2
11 Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree 3
12 Santa Baby 3
13 What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? 3

If Spirit's Holiday A Cappella Music for Children was really music for grandparents, then their Un-Plugged Holiday Music is music for parents. It could just as easily have been named Adult Contemporary Holiday Music, and the title would have been sufficiently descriptive that I wouldn't need to write this review.

A word for those who are looking for an a cappella album — fewer than half of the songs on this CD are a cappella. Even giving Spirit the (tasteful and appropriate) lead-in and lead-out saxophone solo on An Evening in December for free, only six of the thirteen songs on the disc are a cappella. And of the accompanied tracks, the vast majority are not choral, but solos or duets. And it's those tracks that have made me label this album "Adult Contemporary" - sappy and hopeful songs for adults who idealize the Christmas season as the be-all and end-all time for love, a return to childhood, and saving the world. Now, I'm not saying that these aren't worthy topics, but I don't like being hit over the head with them the way these songs do. (I also think that they're valuable pursuits all year round, not just during one holiday season.) The worst of these tracks (in my opinion) is No More Blue Christmas, in which the message is, "I was incapable of enjoying the Christmas season until I met the right man, and now my life will be perfect." A bit unrealistic and antiquated, if you ask me. In any case, these accompanied tracks might please the Celine Dion and Amy Grant set, but even then, there's better stuff out there.

It's too bad that the majority of the album falls low on the "repeat listenability" o-meter, because there are a couple of nice a cappella moments on it. The CD opens very promisingly, with a warm and rich version of I'll Be Home For Christmas, followed by An Evening In December, which has a Peanuts-esque background of jazzy doo-oo's. Then comes the adult contemporary onslaught, and by the time the excellent, ethereal Snowfall rolls around, it's just not enough to redeem the album as a whole. Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree doesn't actually rock — unfortunately, it and Spirit's signature song, It's Always Been About Love, just don't pack enough of a wallop to keep me interested. Santa Baby is cute, but Kim Harris' solo is almost too stylized — especially compared with the torch song sound she pulls off on the final track. Overall, if you're looking for a Christmas a cappella CD, this one doesn't even fit the definition.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 1
Tracks
1 I'll Be Home For Christmas 5
2 An Evening In December 4
3 Grown Up Christmas List 3
4 Because It's Christmas 4
5 Mary, Did you know 4
6 Away In A Manger 4
7 Snowfall 5
8 It's Always Been About Love 3
9 It Must've Been The Mistletoe 3
10 No More Blue Christmas 3
11 Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree 3
12 Santa Baby 3
13 What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? 4

Looking for more Christmas music? Here comes another album full of it from Spirit, a mixed group from Kansas. Should you buy this one? That depends on a few things. First, are you looking for true a cappella (no instruments)? 'Cause the album title, Unplugged, would lead you to think that's what this is filled with. If so, don't. This album has a great number of songs with instrumental accompaniment. Second, are you hoping to hear lots of interesting arrangements of Christmas tunes? If so, don't. There are not really any notably interesting arrangements to be found on board. Nothing that is very challenging or anything that grabs your attention. Do you like holiday music that is arguably sappy? If so, buy this.

Not that there is anything wrong with sappy... it's all a matter of perspective and personal taste. Personally, I get really tired of music that is constantly and blatantly dripping with honey-sweet-yank-at-your-heart-strings sort of stuff. I can't listen to it for long.

This album is also full of non-ensemble songs. Meaning, there are only one or usually two singers with an instrumental background for a great number of songs. So there is not nearly as much four-part harmony group singing as there has been in other albums I have heard from Spirit. It is all performed about as well and as professionally as can be by this group of mature and experienced singers. There are no technical errors to be found. The production was great. Their pitch and balance was just fine. There is one song in particular that I thought was noteworthy: Snowfall. This was a song that had some really nice, simple jazz harmonies, along with a great sense of atmosphere.

I guess that in the end, this album did not grab my attention. It is going to appeal to a great number of people out there, though. You may be one of those people. I won't write it off for someone else. But, Unplugged Holiday Music by Spirit is not for me.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 1
Tracks
1 I'll Be Home For Christmas 4
2 An Evening In December 4
3 Grown Up Christmas List 4
4 Because It's Christmas 3
5 Mary, Did you know 3
6 Away In A Manger 3
7 Snowfall 4
8 It's Always Been About Love 3
9 It Must've Been The Mistletoe 1
10 No More Blue Christmas 3
11 Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree 3
12 Santa Baby 4
13 What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? 4

The aspect of this Spirit album which lifts it above the others I've heard so far is the variety of song selections. There's a nice mix of standards with some less common Christmas tunes. That tends to make it feel a tad less like background tree-trimming music, but it still has its share of weak points...

It's another non-a cappella album, with 8 of the 13 tracks having accompaniment of some sort. Why is RARB reviewing this album at all? If you find out, let me know...

This is a tough album to review for me — Do I judge it in relation to a cappella albums even though it's not? Do I judge how I think they succeeded with what they may have been trying to accomplish — a mellow adult Christmas album? Do I judge it by how it makes me feel to listen to it?

This has an overwhelming "mellow adult contemporary" feel to it, so you decide for yourself if that's good or bad. For me it was the latter — the schmaltzy crooning of some of the soloists combined with the sickly sweetness of half of the songs — like An Evening In December, Because It's Christmas (penned by your friend and mine, Barry Manilow), Mary Did You Know, Mistletoe (which also suffers from major tuning problems), and No More Blue... - nearly made me ill.

I'll Be Home and Snowfall are refreshing highlights of the album, not only because they're some of the rare a cappella moments (I acknowledge my personal bias here) but the arrangements are complex and interesting, a notch above Spirit's typical fare. Too bad there weren't more songs like these two on the CD. Maybe next time...


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 2
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 1
Tracks
1 I'll Be Home For Christmas 3
2 An Evening In December 2
3 Grown Up Christmas List 2
4 Because It's Christmas 2
5 Mary, Did you know 2
6 Away In A Manger 2
7 Snowfall 3
8 It's Always Been About Love 2
9 It Must've Been The Mistletoe 2
10 No More Blue Christmas 2
11 Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree 2
12 Santa Baby 2
13 What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? 3

Just because I usually spend Christmas at the movies, eating Chinese food, or skiing, it doesn't mean that I can't appreciate Christmas music. In fact, I was often jealous of my friends who decorated a huge tree while I lit one candle for eight nights. I often get chills when the holiday season rolls in, white lights start to appear everywhere, and children are seen frolicking in the malls looking for Santa. And Christmas carols? I sing them with everyone else; except for when they're sappy, cheesy tunes like the ones from Spirit's album Un-Plugged Holiday Music.

I was close to offended by receiving this CD, because only 5 of the 13 tracks are a cappella, and the other 8 don't even come close. There are a cappella groups out there that occasionally use instruments, but the songs that have instruments usually still have harmonic singing that goes along with them. This is a CD full of different people singing lounge-style Christmas solos over a fabricated wedding-band sound.

The recording quality was one that I really didn't enjoy. There was WAY too much reverberation, and the sound production was somewhat scratchy. Imagine this: the sound one gets when you turn up your stereo too loud and there is buzzing and a bit of feedback... that is the best way to describe it in layman's terms.

Soloists do give it their all and have a very polished, professional sound. They certainly can schmooze which gets very tiring very quickly. Throughout the album, I kept getting images of this group performing in a variety of places: a bad Kathie Lee Christmas special, a smoky bar on Christmas eve, or at each other's homes.

Beautifully blended a cappella pieces that reflect the gentle, family-oriented spirit of Christmas appear on this album, but these aren't challenging harmonies or toe-tapping tunes. The basses get a basic line and everyone else sings. You certainly won't want to 'crank your stereo' for this group.

I have other CDs to review by this group. Hopefully they'll be more a cappella and less of what I found on this one, otherwise it'll do nothing but dampen my spirit.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 I'll Be Home For Christmas 4
2 An Evening In December 4
3 Grown Up Christmas List 4
4 Because It's Christmas 3
5 Mary, Did you know 4
6 Away In A Manger 3
7 Snowfall 3
8 It's Always Been About Love 3
9 It Must've Been The Mistletoe 3
10 No More Blue Christmas 4
11 Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree 4
12 Santa Baby 4
13 What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? 3

Spirit supplies another solid album of Christmas music, showing again the superb blend which is their trademark and the musical meekness which is their only deficit. As on their other albums, interpretation is quite consistently the same across songs: tame. Some minor variations in the soloists (who are themselves good) cannot change this. If I am allowed a little jocularity, this album best reflects that part of the party before the host has spiked the eggnog and things really get rolling.

It is my duty to relate, following the customs of a cappella reviews, that many of the songs on this album are accompanied (by piano, upright bass and saxophone, with some drum tracks). More so than for other a cappella groups, perhaps, this seems appropriate here, not detracting from the music but utterly in line with its mellow, slightly medicated feel. Some tracks in fact are essentially solo pieces for particular singers, accompanied by light instrumentals.

The soloists are quite good technically, never overextending and always smooth, articulate and spot-on in terms of pitch. At the same time, they are a bit sedate. While this works on many of the tracks, others could have stood a bit more "rockin'" (e.g., ... around the Christmas Tree). There is an unabashed old-school sound here, hearkening back to a gentler time; it may rub modern ears the wrong way.

Despite solid harmony and serviceable solos, Unplugged would not merit much space in my holiday music collection; some of Spirit's other albums (reviewed by this board) are more completely a cappella and more convincingly, not to say spiritedly, sung.


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Ordering Information

You can reach the group any of several ways:

email
Carnakks@aol.com
web
http://www.fundraisingspirit.com/
phone
800-222-0400 or 316-686-1537 ext 3208
mail
Spirit Inc
8629 Shannon Way
Wichita, Kansas 67206

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