Review: We Sing Together, by Rigel Thurston
December 1st Release Date
I promise you this, Rigel Thurston’s new recording, We Sing Together, is your new favorite Christmas album. Thurston has crafted something scarce here merely by having faith in the music he is playing and his ability to play it. Because of that faith, his songs are generous and endearing without any of the sentimentality and cheap manipulation that plagues almost every other Christmas recording of the last few years. If you aren’t already sold, keep reading. I am willing to make my case.
Its a weird time in our culture to love Christmas music. I can attest to the fact that my social media is far more jam-packed with people bemoaning one aspect or another of holiday tunes than my real life is filled people who actually buy and listen to Christmas themed albums.
And this is no surprise. With a market as saturated as the holiday music market is, it seems that in an effort to sell something fresh, every new recording falls into one of two dissatisfying categories: overwrought niche recordings, and ironic anti-Christmas twists on seasonal music.
It’s not all bad, consider “CeeLo’s Magic Moment” from 2012 or 1996’s “New Wave Xmas” and you know some good fun can come from such niche efforts. For a happy example of an ironic Christmas moment, look no further than the 2013 album Christmas Songs by Bad Religion which opens with an acapella refrain from the hymn, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Sure, I am glad that exists, but it seems very self consciously to be a product more than music. Christmas is either a kind of punchline in popular seasonal music or worse, it is nothing more than a venue for an artist to showcase their unique appeal. That is fine, but it hardly makes for the kind of music of shared and vibrant memories. When I think of Christmas music, I think of the songs we used to sing. I think first of the songs themselves, not so-and-so’s “cover version” of a classic hymn.
The classical Christmas recordings seemed to be aware of this. Ella Fitgerald, Bing Crosby, The Carpenters were all stellar performers who recorded beautiful Christmas music by merely trying to let the songs themselves be beautiful. They try to do the songs that people have sung for generations, justice. In contrast, Mariah Carey’s, All I Want For Christmas, is basically a high school quarterback’s overly elaborate “promposal” choreographed more for Youtube than for the girl he is supposed to be wooing into being his date to prom, “Please let me be a Christmas Classic, Watch how many notes I can squeeze into this lyric. Can you believe how much cheer is in this song?!” Look, I love Christmas ham as much as anyone, I just don’t want it served with cheese.
Enter Rigel Thurston, armed with nothing more than a piano and a voice. Thurston has assembled a warm collection of Christmas songs that are as suitable for close listening in a reflective or otherwise melancholy moment or as it is proper ambiance for whatever social event has you doing your best impression of Martha Stewart.
Thurston’s performance on his one original song and title track holds its own among other modern classics. Reminiscent of the soulful Americana vocals of Mark Cohn or Bruce Hornsby, Thurston’s performance isn’t selling anything, but instead invites you to lean in. It’s a top candidate to be the soundtrack to every montage of friends and family being greeted at the door and managing the demands of carrying potluck dishes and scrambling for eager hugs.
A lesser musician would have lost me with The Christmas Song, but Thurston lets the song be as sweet and kind of a song it was meant to be without trumpeting through that opening octave leap or milking the sincerity of many times and many ways he wishes you Merry Christmas.
He is similarly adept at celebrating other songs often leveraged as emotional showstoppers such as Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, or I’ll be Home for Christmas. These are not showstoppers in the same way that the long stretches of wildflowers along Texas highways are not show stoppers but nevertheless draw thousands to the Hill Country in spring to see their beauty. To the same extent he avoids the schmaltzy melodrama of intentionally poignant songs, he also brings a gravity and sincerity to songs that have been carved away by camp and cartoons. Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and, God help us, Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree are genuinely listenable and actually sung like the singing matters. These arrangements are not cute, but indeed joyful. They are effervescent, and Thurston lets the music just be happy without irony or without having to be a backdrop to some on-screen joke or gag. This is one of my absolutely favorite recordings of Holly Jolly Christmas that will have you pulling grampa from the recliner to dance a little jig like he used to. Cut a rug grampa. Show ‘em how it’s done. I will hold your cane.
Silent Night and O Come, O Come Emmanuel are both reverent without having to dampen the whole collection with unnecessarily ponderous solemnity or Church organs. They look inward without being the sing that throws water on your Christmas party. They are more than adequate listening for reflection by the tree Christmas eve or on a long cold walk when you need to recover that last minute run to the grocery store.
You won’t think of these songs as Rigel Thurston’s version of these songs, you will just sing along. With a full 21 songs, this is a solid collection of memorable melodies and not one of them is a misstep that would have you programming it out of your shuffle rotation. This is precisely the album you need to have around to create a mood, to put you or someone else in the holiday spirit when they need it. This is an album you owe it to your kids to have around the house. It is reverent and playful. It is full of believable well-wishes and cheer without any sense of artifice or pretense. And that is why it is your new favorite Christmas album to own.
Look, people used to sing. People used to sing together. Not only are far fewer people attending religious services, but people used to just have pianos in their houses and banjos on the porch, and we would all lend our efforts to make something magical together that existed only in that particular moment. I am not just being nostalgic, I am being anthropological. Music is a uniquely human activity where people experience each other’s shared humanity by gathering around melodies and elevating them with even the most unadorned harmonies while experiencing what it meant to move in sync with each other. Music wasn’t always something you owned or downloaded. It was almost never something experienced privately. It was something you made and indeed shared, only for a moment in time.
Rigel Thurston’s We Sing Together, understands this. This is music to share. And while it is in fact downloadable, unlike the niche recordings of songs about the baby Jesus crafted to highlight some singer’s vocal prowess, Rigel just gives you these honest and lovely songs. He is generous. They are yours to experience, and to share without having to sign on as a fan of Jazz or having to promise to be impressed by some belted high note or quirky arrangement. To be sure the music is indeed fresh, creative, and exquisitely performed. It just doesn’t ask you to pay more attention to Rigel Thurston’s formidable talent than to these beautifully rendered classics. Thurston cares enough and is good enough to do some justice to these songs that are etched in our limbic system and that have become part of our shared story. And now, finally, your family has a new album it can put on Christmas morning that everyone likes, and that is worth sharing.
Get it here: https://www.rigelthurston.com/we-sing-together
Disclosure, Rigel Thurston is my friend but did not compel me to write this.