The Birth of Jesus: A Celebration of Christmas, John Michael Talbot, produced by Billy Ray Hearn (Sparrow).

Contemporary Christmas music sometimes sounds like an awkward fusion of the rhythms of “Jingle Bell Rock” and the sentimentality of Bing Crosby. John Michael Talbot’s first Christmas album, The Birth of Jesus, achieves a fresh sound that avoids both extremes.

Talbot performs Advent and Christmas standards, such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “What Child Is This?” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and “Lo How a Rose Ere Blooming.” He sings with a subtle passion that won’t be mistaken for holiday Muzak. His mellow voice and folk guitar are variously complemented by “ancient instruments” (i.e., recorders and harpsichord), a chamber orchestra, and English men’s and boys’ choirs. Talbot and producer Billy Ray Hearn researched ancient carols and chants for the project; some of the songs carry a lilting, but bare suggestion of medieval and Renaissance music.

The result is striking. “We hope to have used just enough of the ancient to give the whole project a sense of rootedness,” says Talbot, “and just enough of the contemporary to make it approachable to modern listeners.” Unfortunately, choir and orchestra often overshadow the recorders, guitar, and harpsichord, as well as Talbot’s own simple signature sound.

Talbot’s original songs are based on the Gospels’ infancy narratives and other biblical accounts of the Incarnation, making this album a melodic recollection of that first silent night.

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