Used to be that pop stars routinely put out Christmas albums – often heavily produced, delightfully kitschy affairs. These days it's commonplace in the Celtic world, so we've got Christmas albums from Teada, from Cherish the Ladies, from Susan McKeown and the late Johnny Cunningham, from Scottish fiddler Bonnie Rideout, Maddy Prior, and now, from Irish singer and harper Moya Brennan.
One of the reasons for the proliferation of Celtic and folk Christmas albums is no doubt how nicely they lend themselves to autumn tours, and these Celtic Christmas events are nearly always terrific, and nearly always sold out. More concerts – good. Bigger audiences – very good. So bring on the Celtic Christmas CDs!
Moya Brennan straddles both the Celtic and new-age world, having begun as the lead singer for the Irish family group Clannad from its founding in 1970. She was initially known as Máire Ní Bhraonáin, just as her sister Enya was originally known as Eithne. Clannad always had a bit of jazz and mysticism mixed in to their riffs, and once they began doing soundtracks – for the BBC televised series Robin of Sherwood, The Angel and the Soldier (1990), and The Last of the Mohicans (1992) – their sound became a pervasive coffee-house backdrop. A two-time Grammy nominee, the beauteous Brennan has even recorded with U2, and her breathy, delicate singing adds an ethereal quality to any tune.
Brennan's An Irish Christmas is more new-age with a bit of trad thrown in than some of the other Celtic albums out there, and makes a nice addition to your Celtic Christmas spot on the CD rack. The mostly quiet and soothing arrangements, many done by Brennan herself, are a nice antidote to a busy time shopping for gifts or returning them at crowded malls. It's nicely produced; and if at times the tunes blend into each other, that's more of a plus than a minus.
"Deck the Halls" lilts in a cheery way, with uillean pipes by Eamonn Galldubh supporting Brennan's harmonies. "Do You Hear/Don Oiche Ud i mBeithil" (“That Night in Bethlehem”) combines two carols evocatively. It's heavy on the echo effect, but it works: think starry night in Bethlehem somehow mixed in with a Pre-Raphaelite painting. "Gabriel's Message", sung simply by Brennan, is perhaps a lesser-known tune, in a minor key, that honors Mary. "Joy to the World" is energetic and a bit more pop; it even includes timpani (drums by Paul Byrne). The album's real standouts are those that are most simple and quiet, including "The Wexford Carol", which highlights Brennan's voice, "In Dulci Jubilo", given a cantering arrangement with strings, and a sublimely soothing "Oiche Chuin (Silent Night)", which closes the album – and includes vocals by Brennan's children. Their sweet, innocent voices invoke the hope and joy of the season.
Moya Brennan's An Irish Christmas is a contemplative and lovely way to set the tone for a joyous New Year.
Carol of the Bells
The Wexford Carol
Deck the Halls
Do You Hear/Don Oiche Ud i mBeithil
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Joy to the World
I Still Believe
In the Bleak Midwinter
Love Came Down at Christmas
In Dulci Jubilo
Oiche Chuin (Silent Night)
Author: Gwen Orel
Gwen Orel has been in love with Celtic music since she was a teenager. Founder of the Celtic Music Society of Montgomery, her writing has appeared in the New York Times, American Theatre, Time Out New York, and Back Stage. For the past two years, she hes produced Celtic music for the Folk Project, New Jersey.