Friday, December 27, 2013

A Fairly Original Country Christmas Album: The Gift By Kenny Rogers!

The Good: Good mix of largely obscure Christmas music, Decent vocal range
The Bad: Very short, Musically unspectacular.
The Basics: A very different Christmas album, The Gift showcases the talents of Kenny Rogers as a performer, even if there is not much to the album other than fairly original song choices.

Complaining about how much Christ comes up on a Christmas album is about as ridiculous as wondering why the Torah has so many Hebrew characters; it’s the nature of the work. And yet, recently while driving with my wife, she put on one of her favorite Christmas albums from her childhood - The Gift by Kenny Rogers – and as we drove along, I began to get progressively more uncomfortable with how religious the album was (both my wife and I are atheists, but she was raised as a Christian). After a few days of letting the emotional impact of The Gift wear off, I got to a place where I felt I could objectively listen to the album and review it fairly.

I was actually surprised when considering The Gift that I had reviewed only one other Kenny Rogers album; 20 Great Years (reviewed here!). Rogers is one of my wife’s favorite Country music artists and from an objective standpoint, The Gift is good, especially for a Christmas album. Unlike the usual standards that appear on virtually every other Christmas album since Elvis released Elvis’s Christmas Album (reviewed here!), The Gift is largely unfamiliar Christmas works, at least to the general population. Only one song contains familiar Christmas songs and even those are ones (the song is a massive medley) that fall to the hymn side of Christmas music.

With only nine tracks clocking out at 43 minutes, The Gift is mostly hampered by being short. Kenny Rogers clearly has plenty of faith and Christmas spirit, so why he includes so few songs and uses so little of the compact disc’s capacity is a bit of a mystery to me. Rogers sings the lead vocals on all of the songs, but he is only credited as a co-writer on a single track (which surprised me because I had not heard any of the other songs before this album). Rogers is not credited with any of the instruments, arrangements, or production credits on The Gift. How much of The Gift is actually Rogers’s creative vision, as opposed to being studio vision/profit motive is unclear.

That said, Kenny Rogers provides smooth, beautiful vocals on all of the songs. He sings every line on the album so it may be clearly understood and the album has a very Gospel-Country sound to it.

Instrumentally, Rogers is backed up by keyboards and light strings. Only “Pretty Little Baby Child” truly diverges in terms of the instrumental accompaniment; it includes percussion (presumably glockenspiels) that bring the song a more up-tempo and almost Caribbean sound. The rest of the songs sound like they could be played at virtually any church. The one problem with that is the familiar song; “The Chosen One Montage.” “The Chosen One Montage” is a fifteen-plus minute song that has Kenny Rogers telling and singing the story of the birth of Jesus. Utilizing children singing and asking questions, Rogers answers with the story of Christmas in words and music. Unfortunately, the children’s vocals come between long stretches of Rogers singing, so it replays poorly; there is more of a feeling of “Oh, are we still on that song?!” when the children’s vocals pop back up seemingly at random.

Lyrically, The Gift is very much a Christmas – and Christian – album. The songs are largely unfamiliar to secular listeners and include larger religious themes than just Christmas. For example, “A Soldier’s King” plays off the Country music-listener’s stereotypical level of faith and patriotism with lines like, “No one seemed to notice the man beside the road / He was just a ragged soldier out there in the cold / But he seemed to have a purpose only known to him / As he walked along the streets that night through the town of Bethlahem. / In his head he held a memory of all the wars he'd known / In his hand he clutched a medal for the bravery he'd shown / And the weight of every battle he caried in his heart / But his eyes were clear and searching for a manger in the dark.” The songs aren’t bad, but they are very much playing to the established Kenny Rogers audience and are fairly inaccessible to anyone who is not a Country or Gospel music fan or a Christian.

Ultimately, The Gift is good for Christians looking for something other than the usual commercial Christmas album or those who are familiar with the songs on the album and are drawn to the nostalgia of it. The best track is “I Trust You,” the “The Chosen One Montage” fares the worst over multiple replays.

For other fairly original Christmas albums, please visit my reviews of:
Wintersong - Sarah McLachlan
Midwinter Graces - Tori Amos
20th Century Masters: Christmas Collection – The Best Of Reba - Reba McEntire


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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