We’re moving right along with the one and only Christmas album by one of my favorite groups: 4Him. I didn’t enjoy everything 4Him put out, and I only really enjoyed about half the group’s voices individually, but dang, they had a great sound all together, and they did have some terrific songs. I want to thank my friend Wes Burke for putting me on to this Christmas project. “I’m telling you, their Christmas album is pure gold,” he whispered in my ear. (Well, not exactly… it was in an e-mail, but you get the idea.)
The Star On Top: Without question, the star on top has to be “Strange Way to Save the World.” Yes, the lyrics are somewhat confused because they don’t convey Joseph’s Jewish perspective on the Nativity very accurately (see this post for further details), but the music is so beautifully written and the song so touchingly delivered that it’s rightfully considered a Christmas classic. It’s definitely my favorite Mark Harris feature. It has been covered by many artists, including several within southern gospel.
“Little Drummer Boy” — I’ve already put a rendition of this carol into the “golden rings” section for another album (Buddy Greene’s). I really think it’s hard to go wrong with it. Andy Chrisman takes the lead on a crisp, clean rendition. It starts off with percussion only but swiftly segues into some classic synthesized 80s grooviness, a sound that delightfully pervades the entire album (being that the 90s hadn’t had enough time to recover from the 80s when it was released). Signature 4Him.
“White Christmas” – This is a fresh twist on the familiar carol. Mark Harris starts off crooning at a jazzy pace, but after the first verse, Andy takes over and the harmonies just explode in a doo-wop kind of style that takes things to a whole new level. Watch a live performance here (filmed some years later when they had better haircuts). [Edit: The link is broken and has been removed.]
“A Night to Remember” — Just a great 80s sound on this one, saxophone and all. Mark Harris takes the lead on it. Like all the 4Him guys, he was really in his vocal prime right around this time period. There’s just a little extra tone in his voice that he doesn’t quite have anymore. This original tune is a blast to listen to, and it moves surprisingly into a little “O Holy Night” part-way through (the lead shifting momentarily to Chrisman). I never thought “O Holy Night” could sound good with a jazzy saxophone, but the little snippet of it that they worked in amazingly does here.
“Do You Hear What I Hear?” – I’ve always thought this carol was a little boring. Plus, it doesn’t really make sense. But the 4Him guys absolutely light it up. Seriously, this arrangement takes off like Marty McFly on his skateboard and doesn’t let up. It builds up to an almost black gospel breakdown. The backup harmonies are fantastic, and Marty Magehee really does a great job taking the lead. Even though he’s the member whose voice fits least comfortably in my ear, he always had a lot of natural talent, and he was surprisingly able with this sort of number.
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” — Much like “White Christmas,” this is a doo-wop twist on an old favorite. It starts out with traditional acapella, but the melody is quickly syncopated, to pretty funky but cool effect. It may not be my favorite version of this carol, but it’s different and, like most of the album, fun to listen to.
“In Your Care” — Andy Chrisman could sometimes be a little rough on his voice, but on this album he showed how good he was at singing ultra-sweet and ultra-clear. This song is a prime example of that. It’s sort of been lost in the shadow of “Strange Way to Save the World,” but I would argue it’s very nearly just as good. It’s beautifully written from the perspective of Jesus:
Sleep, Mary, sleep. I will be there soon
Entering earth through your precious womb
My child, oh my mother of earth
Give me the gift of birth…
The second verse is spoken to Israel, praying they will know He is their King (of course they wouldn’t). The recurring theme is that Jesus was entrusted to ordinary, earthly people who made the choice to either embrace him or crucify him. The idea comes full circle at the end when Jesus turns it around and tells Mary “You’ll be in my care.” She was both child and mother, both protector and protected. I think the one misstep in this song is the repeated use of the phrase “Please be aware.” Awkward. But other than that, very nice.
Stale cookies: A jazzy carol mash-up including “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Away in the Manger” and “Silent Night” simply fails to inspire in any way. And the opening title track would be virtually intolerable were it not for the smart harmonies which kick in around the bridge to rescue it from being…
The Coal in the Bottom: “Hold On to Christmas.” Think “The Christmas Song,” except even sappier.
This project was released right around the same time as albums like Face the Nation and The Basics of Life. If you’re like me and that’s your favorite era of 4Him, you will greatly enjoy the sound of this CD. It embodies everything awesome and cheesy about that barely-out-of-the-80s-90s-sound that we all love, even if we don’t always want to admit it.