Balsam Range It’s Christmas Time Mountain Home Music Company
Considering I’ve yet to experience the group in concert, I would still place Balsam Range on my list of contemporary ‘top ten’ bluegrass bands. I’ve written about them several times (Here, here, here, here, and again here) and I am certain they have never disappointed me across their six albums.
It’s Christmas Time, the group’s new seasonal EP, is a very different project for the North Carolina group. If one went by the F-I-L SoBA (Father-in-Law Scale of Bluegrass Acceptability), there is no doubt the release falls short.
Bluegrass instrumentation is for the most part down-played, while the Nashville Recording Orchestra—a violin section, violas, cellos, and double bass—is prominently featured. The result is an acoustic melding of ‘down-home’ and ‘uptown’ that isn’t going to appeal to most staid members of the bluegrass community; the lively saxophone break amid the free-spirited “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” will absolutely be an adornment too extreme for many.
“I’m Going Home, It’s Christmas Time,” which I associate with Ralph Stanley and Ernie Thacker, is provided the most ‘straight-forward’ bluegrass interpretation, with Darren Nicholson taking the lead place with just his Balsam Range partners participating. Certainly it is my favourite number on the seven-track release, but that doesn’t mean the more embellished productions fail. Rather, they are quite extraordinary: they just aren’t dyed-in-the-wool bluegrass, and—as such—leave this listener unfulfilled.
The group’s intent with It’s Christmas Time was most obviously to push themselves beyond the boundaries of the five-person bluegrass ensemble. The bluegrass vocal arrangements of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “The First Noel” are impressive, and the string section accompaniment is appreciated given the group’s motivation. Also appealing is Balsam Range’s interpretation of Doc Watson’s “Christmas Lullaby”. BR chooses to broaden Watson’s concise arrangement, not only with sweetening from the NRO, but providing ample space for the group member’s accompanying instrumental fills and breaks. The result is somewhat cinematic.
Most assuredly, It’s Christmas Time will fit-in aurally beside the ‘background’ Christmas music we will hear over the next week or so. Unfortunately, I’m equally certain bluegrass should never be ‘background music.’ Nope, for me the energy, vibrancy, and masterful vocal creations that comprise bluegrass should always be placed to the fore.
And while the skill and execution of Balsam Range and their collaborators on It’s Christmas Time is never in doubt, I don’t see this collection replacing Larry Sparks’ Christmas in the Hills, and my Hay Holler, Rounder, Pinecastle, and Sugar Hill seasonal compilations.
Impressive and appreciated, certainly. Beloved? Sorry, no.