Monday, November 10, 2014

Carolyn Arends: Christmas; The Story of Stories

Album: Christmas: the Story of Stories     (10/2014)
Genre: Adult/Family Contemporary with a vibrant rootsy base

Note: I  keep Carolyn’s albums in the same box that I do Andrew Peterson, Bob Bennett,  and Michael Kelly Blanchard  (If those names don’t help, you could put this in the box with  James Taylor and Mr. Rodgers.:)

The cover got it right: organic, whimsical, and pleasantly quirky.

Quick Spin

It is not often that you will hear the words “child-like” and “impeccable” in the same sentence, but when Carolyn Arends creates music, she twines child-like wonder and unbridled warmth, with an impeccable sense of sound and musical theater.

The Story of Stories is a Christmas themed album.  Three carols - one Rich Mullins classic;  everything else written by Carolyn on or about Christmas eve over several years… Even so. This does not sound so much like a Christmas album.

What it does sound like is a Princess-Mom handing out gooey chocolate chip cookies at the PTA -- while singing about complex algebra, in friendly terms, against a backdrop of utterly gorgeous music.  (That is, Carolyn is given largely to the Cosmic, God-in-the-flesh side of Advent – but writing about it in a such a way that this very big idea settles in our ears with ease. Beyond that Carolyn has a knack for looking at old themes from a fresh tilt.

About the Music:

Two times in the last three years, my wife and I have been privileged to visit the most glorious highway on Earth.  We speak of that ribbon of road between Banff and Jasper Canada, where mountains of unthinkable size, chase one another like beads on a string.  All of which has nothing to do with this review, except for one little detail.  When in Canada, we watch Canadian TV and news.  And Canadian TV and news is of a visibly different character than the over-stimulated world of state-side TV.

This picture has nothing to do with anything, but it was taken in Canada:)
When Canadian pundits discuss the news, they tend to talk. They do not scream, they give their counterparts time to respond.  When they speak of crisis, it is with measure, and even their beautiful talking-head women seem to be of a different breed.  Pretty, but not garish; The whole terrain just seems more human.

While there is little in the actual sound of the Story of Stories that is itself “Canadian”  Ie…   No angry French lumberjacks – the whole thing shimmers with Canadian sensibilities: 

The music is skillfully wrought, organic, and without all that American wiz-bang.

I may have heard a strain or two of electricity, but not much.  What we get is a rich tapestry of rootsy sounds, ranging from Appalachia to Hawaiian to Creole.... all delivered in a lush but very human landscape.  (Real musicians playing real instruments.)  I  am hearing all kinds of earthy vibes:  Mandolin, Mandola, fiddle, violin,  dulcimer, bells, cello, uke, bouzouki. piano, ukulele,  organ, glockenspiel, hurdy gurdy, gourds, tambourines, and assorted guitars.  (I did n't actually hear all those, I read them off the handsome linear notes.)   I also heard some primo singers doing the invisible angel thing.

There are times in this album where the fiddle or strings are just so melodic and sweet, that my whole being sighs.  And I absolutely love those big bells and chimes that show up in some of the carol like places.

The music throughout is simply superb.

(Since first writing, I have since learned a little more... to find out more about the process and the collaboration see:


If Story of Stories was just an instrumental work, it would be impressive in its own right.  But what makes Stories extra special is Carolyn's song craft, and the whole emotional vitality she brings through voice and presentation.

Like many Christmas albums, it was recorded in late Spring.  And despite her efforts to hide that fact by wearing a coat and scarf for her photograph.. those green trees are easy to see. 

This album – and Carolyn's voice are just plain sunny.  

And wholesome too.  (I think I said something like this in my last review of a Carolyn product, but sometimes we get so accustomed to female vocals that are angry, pensive or sultry,  that a woman with a joyous disposition is a novelty in itself.


Beyond the sound, the thing that makes Carolyn's music shine is her ability to take big ideas and boil them down into simple verse, and look at life from a different vantage point.  For example:

Oh little town of Bethlehem,
I think it is a lie, hat you were still or dreamless
On that first Christmas night,
Cause you has soldiers and politicians,
over crowding in your streets,
and there was chaos, and human cruelty
and never quite enough to eat
and then the baby came..
I think he cried the way that babies do,
I think his mama may have cried a little too...

or take this little factoid (the wise men arrived much later than commonly assumed by many) and dress it up in a much bigger idea.

Goodness gracious, man alive,
those kings had to drive, it was two whole years till they finally arrived ...
          Such a long way to go
People say that love has limits, People just don't know
How far the love the came at Christmas, is prepared to go.

I could bring, many other examples  -- like how Carolyn turns "No Room at the Inn" on its head -- but  I might lessen the discovery.

I will however, share a link.  From Carolyn herself.  This shows how Carolyn started with a pun, added some whimsy, then chased a really big idea....

So Final thought.

Story of Stores is really GOOD album.   And I mean that as both an aesthetic judgment, and a moral pronouncement.  Given as I am to a world occupied at by minor themes and discord, I find I need this full bodied affirmation of the Goodness of God.

When I listen to this my whole being feels flooded with sunshine, like what happens when you close your eyes on a bright day.   Only it is night and God is in the room.  Or something like that..

Thank you Carolyn (and all your uber talented musician friends!)

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