Stubbys House of Christmas       
 
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1.  God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
2.  O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
3.  Jingle Bell Rock
4.  Good King Wenceslas
5.  Angels We Have Heard on High
6.  The First Noel
7.  O Holy Night
8.  I’ll Be Home for Christmas
9.  Silent Night


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John Keane started out as a musician, but, along the way, he became a producer and recording engineer and the owner of John Keane Studios in music rich Athens, Georgia.  John's studio has played host to everyone from Vic Chestnutt to The B-52s, from REM to The Indigo Girls. John was even nominated for a Grammy for his work on Widespread Panic's "Dirty Side Down".

But it's not as though John stopped making music.  He plays on many of the records that he mixes, engineers, and/or produces.  It's also become something of a tradition for John to perform at Christmas time with his daughters, Rachel and Paige--twins who are now 17.  Some of these performances are spontaneous sessions at neighborhood parties and sometimes they are planned, arranged, advertised performances at area theaters.  John, Rachel and Paige have also made a habit, in recent years, of recording holiday songs for family and friends.  Beats the heck out of a Hallmark card.

"O Christmas, Where Art Thou?" is the natural progression for the annual holiday singing of We Three Keanes. And what an album it is.  The music is not just earnestly played and sung, though it is that; it is sung and played magnificently.  The harmony vocals provided by John and his daughters are about as perfect as perfect gets.  At times, We Three Keanes have a sound that's reminiscent of the Southern California country rock sound of bands like Poco and the Eagles.  At times, their sound is more southern and traditional, like the Isaacs.  And, when Dad takes the lead on "Good King Wenceslas", the sound is a little more Folk Pop, a la James Taylor or Dan Fogelberg.

The album opens with a rousing country rock medley of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "We Three Kings".  If the album ended there, it would still be an amazing effort.  There is some fine picking on the guitar, here, some steel guitar, some banjo--all mixed impeccably--but it's already clear that the vocal talents of the three are the stars of the show.  We Three Keanes seal the deal on the very next track, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel".  These harmonies are just too beautiful to describe.  They sparkle like the sun on new fallen snow.

The Keanes add a little kitsch with "Jingle Bell Rock".  The sisters soar on "Angels We Have Heard On High".  On "The First Noel", the family sounds a bit like a female led Rascal Flatts.  Dad's steel guitar adds just the right color to a gorgeous "O Holy Night".  "I'll Be Home For Christmas" is one part Amy Grant, one part Everly Sisters.  And "Silent Night" wraps up the album in glorious style.

The arrangements are simple and straight forward, the instrumentation is understated and meticulous, and the harmonies are simply unbelievable.  In a world that sometimes seems chaotic and out of control, the simplicity of this album is a welcome relief.  At the end of a long hard day, "O Christmas, Where Art Thou?" is the perfect elixir to help you unwind.  This is the perfect record for turning off the lights, turning on the Christmas tree, putting your feet up and watching the Christmas tree lights blink and glow.  In no time at all, you will feel the stress of the world washing away.  In the end, I believe "O Christmas Where Art Thou?" is the answer to it's own question.  "O Christmas, Where Art Thou?"  Christmas is right here.  

Do me a favor and buy this album.  Because this should not be a one-off.  I need more albums like this one in my life.  You can get the download version at the major on-line retailers, such as Amazon and iTunes, but I suggest you buy the physical CD while you can, which is only available right now from John Keane Studios.
 
 
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1.  Winter Wonderland
2.  This Time Of The Year
3.  Marshmallow World
4.  A Holly Jolly Christmas
5.  I'll Be Home For Christmas
6.  Here Comes Santa Claus
7.  All I Want For Christmas Is You
8.  (There's No Place Like) Home For The Holidays
9.  White Christmas
10. Jingle Bell Rock
11. Let It Snow!  Let It Snow!  Let It Snow!
12. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas


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PURCHASE FROM CRACKER BARREL

Oddly enough, in my little town, Cracker Barrel actually carries more CDs than pretty much anybody else in town.  Such is the state of the retail music industry, all of the other stores that once featured huge music sections have either cut back to only a few of the best sellers or (mostly) have stopped selling music altogether.  Be that as it may, Cracker Barrel is the only place where you can score a copy of this absolute gem from Country singer Mandy Barnett.  And if you're one of those people who says they just don't make records like they used to, Mandy aims to prove you wrong.

Mandy, who some may recall first made her name while still in her teens portraying Patsy Cline in the biographical stage show, set out to make a real old-fashioned Christmas album...just like the kind we used to know.  I've heard the claim before, so count me among the skeptical.  But Mandy completely pulled it off with "Winter Wonderland".  

First, she gathered the right players, including many who had played on some of those late 50s-early 60s Christmas albums we today consider the classics.  Then came the material and, here, Mandy was especially brilliant.  She chose not just the standards from that earlier time--like "White Christmas", "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" and "Winter Wonderland"--but also songs from that era that were new then but destined to become classics (like "Jingle Bell Rock", "This Time Of The Year", "Home For The Holidays" and "A Holly Jolly Christmas").  She also included one more recent selection which may or may not yet be regarded as a standard but is bound to get there, Vince Vance's "All I Want For Christmas Is You".  

The album is lush with strings and sleigh bells, and choral arrangements (I think the background singers were really the touch that firmly cemented that nostalgic feeling), with just the right touch of steel guitar and fiddle so as to leave no doubt that this is a Nashville production.  Every detail is meticulous in recreating the grand Christmas productions of a bygone era.  The sound is exquisitely precise in it's recreation.  It's literally like a picture print by Courier & Ives.  And yet, it's not some lifeless carbon copy; "Winter Wonderland" is fresh and filled with holiday spirit. 

Finally, Mandy's vocals are neigh on perfect.  It's hard not to close your eyes and hear what might have been had Patsy Cline ever recorded a Christmas album, but Mandy can stand on her own as she does on "This Time Of The Year" in the video above.  My personal favorite, here, is "All I Want For Christmas Is You" which is easily the best version of that song since Lisa Layne's original take with Vince Vance back in 1989.  But no doubt you'll find your own favorites.  Check the sound clips at Cracker Barrel.

If you were around in the 50s and 60s (and even the 70s) and you're looking for something that puts that original jingle back into your Christmas bells, Mandy Barnett's "Winter Wonderland" is the perfect prescription.  A little Bing, a little Perry, and a little Mandy Barnett and you'll be decking the halls with a whole lot more FaLaLaLaLa than you've had in years.


 
 
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1. It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas 
2. Christmas Dreamin' 
3. Jingle Bells/Over The River 
4. December 
5. The Santa Claus Boogie 
6. Christmas Has A Way 
7. Let It Snow 
8. One Night In Bethlehem 
9. The Snow Lay On The Ground 
10. Silent Night (Sveta Noc)



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Arrangements of holiday favorites like “It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas” and “Let it Snow”, as well as the sure to become classic, “December” are reminiscent of the Bing Crosby /Nat King Cole era of Christmas albums. As a writer on some of the more contemporary cuts, Brittany conveys the range of emotions the holiday season holds from fun and joy to loneliness and even forgiveness as in the touching title track, “Christmas Has a Way”. The Nativity is beautifully recounted in the soul stirring “One Night in Bethlehem”, destined to be a Christmas carol for ages to come. This delightful collection captures the Message, the magic and the sentiment of the season - steeped in tradition and timeless appeal.

Overall, "Christmas Has A Way" is warm and refreshing, like a winter coat on a blustery day, though I wish she’d started the album with any tune other than “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” which, for me personally, I’d have to rank as the album’s weakest track.  After that, though, this is a really nice record that should readily appeal to fans of the old-time Christmas specials (Andy Williams, et. al.) and fans of modern-day Adult Contemporary pop alike.
 
Originally from Minnesota,
Brittany Allyn moved to Nashville where she built her reputation singing backing vocals for Country artists like Lorrie Morgan and Toby Keith.  All the while, she was studying the craft of song writing and learning the business of the music industry.   Finally, in 2007, Brittany stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight, releasing her critically praised debut, “Like A Butterfly”.  Those expecting a Country disc may have been surprised by the diversity of styles Brittany served up, but I doubt that anyone was disappointed.
 
For her Christmas effort, Brittany hews pretty close to the traditional vocal style prevalent in Christmas albums of the late 50s and 60s, complete with the nice jazz touches in the arrangements.  She offers up a fun medley of “Jingle Bells/Over The River”, and a version of “Let It Snow” that will hold its own among versions by many better known artists in that vein.   And she deserves kudos for choosing “The Snow Lay On The Ground” over other more familiar, and overly performed, traditional carols of the season.
 
But it is on the albums' originals that Brittany Allyn shines brightest.  Were I programming a Country or Adult Contemporary station today, I’d add “Christmas Dreamin’” (written by Brittany and Russ Roberts) to the rotation without hesitation.   Randy Mason’s “December”, on the other hand, harkens back to the vocal standards of the 40s and 50s in a way that will have you longing for a slow dance with the one you love best.  Either of these songs could easily become a Christmas standard in the years ahead.   Allyn, with David Mastran, also penned the passionate and spiritual “One Night In Bethlehem”.  And the sassy “Santa Claus Boogie”, with both words and music by Brittany, sounds to me like a perfect Line- dancing number, though it should be able to find a home with R&B fans in the Carolina Beach Music crowd as well.
 
The winter coat analogy is the best one I can make, here.  This album is comfortable and warm.  It’s not indispensable, by any means, but it’s certainly enjoyable.  And I'd rather have my winter coat than not have it.  “Christmas Dreamin’” and “December”, by themselves, elevate “Christmas Has A Way” to a level where it should not be overlooked.