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A Christmas Gift – Branden and James

The thing about new Christmas albums is that one wonders whether it is really worth adding it to one’s collection. There are, of course, many different ways of recording ‘Jingle Bells’, and there’s probably a bass-baritone rendering of Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas’ out there somewhere. Here, there’s a good mixture of songs – without being too divergent from one another in a bid to demonstrate versatility – always heartfelt and always a pleasant listening experience.

Branden and James - Photo credit Curtis Brown.It’s a surprise that Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’ doesn’t feature on more Christmas albums, given its references to “cutting down trees” and “putting up reindeer”, and the living room ambience created by the orchestrations in this version is warm and inviting. Elsewhere, the orchestrations are lusher, no more so than in ‘Breath of Heaven’, the Amy Grant number.

I hadn’t heard ‘Be Still’ before – and therefore have nothing to compare it to – the duet in this album that sees Branden James team up with Effie Passero, who appeared on the singing competition television series American Idol, is a delight. It is, apparently, a cover by a rock band called The Fray – I wouldn’t have known that just by listening to this version, which comes across as very smooth and borderline classical, far from the edgy jaggedness of rock.

‘Mary, Did You Know?’ had its lyrics penned in 1984 and its music composed in 1991, though it somehow feels as though the song has been around a lot longer. I’ve heard it in carol concerts with a large church choir and orchestra: here, none of the thoughtfulness provoked by the song is lost in this markedly different arrangement. Not everyone likes the song: taken literally, it’s frankly absurd, inasmuch as Mary knew what the song asks about, and she says as much in the Magnificat. But you can never please all of the people all of the time.

Not that this album tries: there’s a sophisticated maturity here that is somewhat removed from the holiday season experience of children’s excitement about the opening of gifts – and sometimes, if the children are so inclined, finding more fun with the packaging than the toys themselves. An intriguing mashup, if I can call it that, of ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ with the Les Misérables ‘prayer’, ‘Bring Him Home’, gives the former tune an added layer of hope.

It’s all so agreeable and charming that some listeners are bound to wish that their favourite holiday tune, if it isn’t featured on this album, would be given the Branden & James treatment. And who knows? It would be a surprise if there weren’t more festive flourishes to come at some point from this duo, who palpably enjoy what they do. So is it worth adding to one’s collection? I’d say so.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

A Christmas Gift features ten tracks; subtly accompanied by piano, and a chorus of cellos composed by the duo’s arranger and cellist, Australian native, James Clark. “Be Still,” a collaboration with 2018 American Idol alum Effie Passero, is a reimagined cover by American rock-band, The Fray, highlighting Passero’s operatic chops, and Branden’s powerful tenor voice, while the cello weaves effortlessly in between the two.

Some tracks such as Amy Grant’s hit song, “Breath Of Heaven,” and Andrea Bocelli’s “Caro Gesu Bambino” are lushly orchestrated, others comparatively, such as Joni Mitchell’s emotional ballad, “River” and “Blanca Navidad,” aka Bing Crosby’s iconic “White Christmas” are stripped down at times with only a stirring solo voice, some piano, and a stray, acoustic guitar.

Listeners will be able to find the new music across all streaming platforms (Spotify, Apple Music, etc) as well as from the artist’s website: brandenjames.com

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