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Praise-Apella

The Perfect Gift (2007)

4.0

July 1, 2008

Tuning / Blend 4.3
Energy / Intensity 4.7
Innovation / Creativity 4.7
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 4.0
Repeat Listenability 3.3
Tracks
1 Silent Night 4.3
2 Joy To The World 4.0
3 Do they Know 4.3
4 Hark The Herald Angels Sing 4.0
5 O' Holy Night 4.3
6 Angels Medley 4.0
7 The First Noel 4.0
8 Mary Did You Know 3.7
9 We Are The Reason 4.0
10 How Great Is Our God 4.0

Recorded 2007
Total time: 37:19, 10 songs


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 1
Tracks
1 Silent Night 4
2 Joy To The World 4
3 Do they Know 4
4 Hark The Herald Angels Sing 4
5 O' Holy Night 4
6 Angels Medley 4
7 The First Noel 4
8 Mary Did You Know 4
9 We Are The Reason 4
10 How Great Is Our God 4

Praise-Apella's Christmas album, The Perfect Gift, has left me perfectly conflicted. It is a well produced, well tuned offering featuring solid soloists and unique arrangements of traditional Christmas hymns. This alone qualifies it for the scores of "4" in all but the "repeat listenability" category.

Artistically, The Perfect Gift is a sad combination of laughable and appalling. As a Christian who enjoys services that involve a pipe organ and not a praise band, I don't understand Praise-Apella's decision to butcher Christmas hymns by churning them through a cheesy, pop muzak grinder.

The opening track, the lovely, reverent Silent Night, starts as a contemporary adult mess, inexplicably drops in a non-equity touring cast of Rent gospel singer interlude, which then segues into a cringe-inducing rap, before popping back into contemporary adult elevator music. Why, why, why?

Track after track, the group loses the simplicity, beauty and meaning of the original songs, which emerge as pseudo-Britney or pseudo-boy band awfulness. A song done "straight" (Hark The Herald Angels Sing) is perfunctory and rushed — an afterthought.

Perhaps they were trying to make Christian hymns more accessible to the general public? The general public typically enjoys bad pop when it involves a hot young girl parading around in a skin-tight outfit (or five ripped young men doing the same), not bad pop by five middle-aged Christians.

Perhaps they were trying to make Christian hymns more interesting to young Christians who want to play the drums or electric guitar in their church's rockin' praise band? More likely. At the same time, the album is horrifying to anyone who holds these hymns dear, including yours truly.

But Praise-Apella has probably sold a ton of these albums, and they don't need our reviews to sell more.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Silent Night 4
2 Joy To The World 4
3 Do they Know 4
4 Hark The Herald Angels Sing 4
5 O' Holy Night 4
6 Angels Medley 4
7 The First Noel 4
8 Mary Did You Know 4
9 We Are The Reason 4
10 How Great Is Our God 4

Bravo to Praise-Apella for making me wish it was December on this lovely summer day. The Perfect Gift is full of surprising, innovative twists that enhance the sense of wonder and joy that the holiday season celebrates. So many artists fail to appropriately contemporize traditional holiday music, often using modern musical conventions such as R&B percussion or rap inappropriately without considering their place in the message of the song. Distraction is often the name of the game, as if the simple, perfect harmonies of the music are something to be ashamed of. Praise-Apella uses these musical tools without sacrificing the spirit of the song. It never feels as if Praise-Apella is innovating for the sake of innovation.

Every voice is strong and expressive. Tones are extremely diverse, particularly between the females. One singer sounds like Go-Gos frontwoman Belinda Carlisle, the other like Claire Torry of Pink Floyd's Great Gig In The Sky. Amazingly, this isn't problematic in the block, and is quite pleasant as the voices weave in and out of each other.

Some of the traditional songs, such as O' Holy Night, are gorgeous in their original simplicity, and some of the added elements could have been stripped down. The "oh!" hip-hop shout throughout is fun but overused. For the most part, the group knows when to innovate and know when to make small, appropriate changes, such as putting a subtle jazz twist on Hark The Herald Angels Sing.

Production is distracting at times. The Daft Punk-esque robotic vocal filter that appears throughout the Angels Medley and the "empty straw" sound in Silent Night do little to enhance the music. However, Bryan Lenox's mixing in generally maintains a warm, welcoming sound.

This CD should be in the CD player of any a cappella or holiday music fan come Christmastime.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Silent Night 5
2 Joy To The World 4
3 Do they Know 5
4 Hark The Herald Angels Sing 4
5 O' Holy Night 5
6 Angels Medley 4
7 The First Noel 4
8 Mary Did You Know 3
9 We Are The Reason 4
10 How Great Is Our God 4

Why is it that the only place for innovation and creativity in a cappella music usually comes in the form of Christmas music? Think about it. The Blenders. Rockapella, among others. Some of their best albums come in the form of Christmas and holiday music. While I enjoy the creativity exhibited in holiday music in the a cappella community, I wish it were showcased in covers of more recent material. Praise-Apella, a mixed Christian group from near Cleveland, Ohio, has created a Christmas album that stands nose to nose with every other a cappella/vocal release to date in the creativity category. In fact, they may just bypass the aforementioned groups in this category.

Throughout The Perfect Gift there is a freshness and feeling of innovative freedom as Praise-Apella vamps through original chord progressions, altered lyrics, and a fun bopping Pop/R&B-infused sound only to bring the melodies we all know and love back into the song, ultimately leaving this listener with a feeling of satisfaction and gratefulness for being allowed to take part in the journey — even if it isn't the holidays.

Musically, I never found myself bored with any single track. Just when I thought I knew where the arrangement was heading, Praise-Apella took it in a new direction. My eyebrows raised when I heard a rap line in Silent Night, but it really added to the momentum and texture of the song. The same song needs a little more attention to the small details as it concludes with the phrase "All was calm and all was briy". "Briy" is not a word. The absence of ending consonants on words, while common in pop singing, should not have slipped by the ears of this talented group. It happens more often than not on The Perfect Gift, and while most will not notice it because they know the songs presented so well, it's something Praise-Apella needs to avoid in future recordings.

In Joy To The World, as well as others, the alto soloist seems a little lazy in her approach, like a smoky lounge singer. This causes many pitches to sag to the flat side of the pitch almost to the point of being severely out of tune, yet not to the point where you'll run for the hills with your ears covered. While I really enjoy the timbre of her voice, my ears can't get past the chronically flat results occurring mostly in solo lines.

Do they Know is a nice ballad praising the gifts of Jesus with close, tight-knit chords backing a soloist who sounds more Boyz II Men than Contemporary Christian. "Do they know they should love one another?" is really the theme throughout this song; it's a message anyone with any belief system can really grasp and hold onto during the holiday season.

Hark The Herald Angels Sing takes a straightforward carol approach (rare in comparison with the rest of the tracks), with a Take 6 sensibility in the voice-leading.

O'Holy Night is the first track in The Perfect Gift with vocal percussion that sounds human. The rest of the percussion sounds as if The Nylons jumped into the studio with their infamous drum tracks, which I've never liked. The VP is not a highlight of the album. At best, it keeps a steady beat for the group. At worst, it's just flat-out boring; I wonder if the recording would have been better without it.

I've noticed that many contemporary Christian albums (a cappella and otherwise) seem to feature nasal soloists and overuse auto-tune. While I don't doubt auto-tune is present (what album doesn't use it these days?), it doesn't come across as obtrusive to my ears. There is a nice mix of singers in this group with hints of jazz, gospel, classical, and pop abounding. Such a diverse mix of voices doesn't usually gel, but Praise-Apella defy the odds and create a tasty concoction of vocal flavors.

The Perfect Gift will get some quality air-time in my world this upcoming holiday season. Is this an album you need to hear and add to your collection? I think you'll be pleasantly surprised, inspired, and gain a sense of warmth in your heart if you do.

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