The Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.
In today’s edition of the Independent Spotlight, we return our gaze to Chris Nole, a seasoned pianist and composer who has been featured several times here on the site. (Including once on the Jukebox Podcast discussing Nole’s music and work with the late John Denver.) A master interpreter and instrumentalist, Nole offers some of his finest work when he reimagines classics through his unique style. Thus, it seems only natural that his next release is a particularly lovely Christmas record, ‘Toyland.’
As I’ve previously remarked in regard to Nole’s music, it’s quite difficult to maintain a listener’s interest across the span of an entire instrumental record. Too often, instrumental albums waltz into ostentatious, meandering territory. Tact and brevity are sometimes necessary to maintain a sharp, consistent sound across a collection of instrumental songs. Nole is a master at this; there isn’t a song on ‘Toyland’ that doesn’t exude the performer’s signature attention to detail.
Holiday music is an even more complicated landscape, one could argue, with Christmas albums often getting inundated by predictable renditions of well-traveled classics bordering on the cliche. From the onset of ‘Toyland,’ both Nole’s execution and song selection allow his record to avoid that entirely. While some of the hallmarks of the holiday are on display, their new arrangements are fascinating, providing intriguing glimpses at beloved songs through a fresh lens.
‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman’ opens the record, a wonderful 18th century hymn that isn’t as immediately recognizable as some of its counterparts on the record. Nole’s soft, delicate performance is as stunning as ever. This time, however, Nole is backed by a full band: percussion, bright synthesizers, and much more swirl around his piano. For the purposes of ‘Toyland,’ this switch from Nole’s otherwise very solitary style is welcome.
The album’s titular song, a track Doris Day popularized in the early 60s, is a shimmery, surreal soundscape that evokes imagery of a snowy Christmas Eve. It harnesses just the right amount of jazz influence to capture the majesty of the Victor Herbert-penned track. In some ways, though, it’s eclipsed by ‘Joy to the World,’ a remarkable take on the famous carol. Nole has rearranged the song into a lower key, making it feel more subdued and natural. It’s one of the most captivating ‘Joy to the World’ recordings I’ve ever heard.
Similarly, Nole ushers ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’ into a more soft-spoken space. Instead of being a bombastic hymn, it’s a finely tuned piano-led lullaby of sorts. It marks one of the most emotional moments on the album. Nole’s production work highlights his performance exactly as it should, letting the piano share space with the other instrumentation, but still have commanding power over the sound.
One of the strengths of ‘Toyland’ this season will be its versatility. These songs, even the traditionally more biblical ones like ‘We Three Kings,’ will easily fit into any holiday setting. The collection is especially easy-listening and gets rid of the over-the-top choruses and bright, bubbly production that, frankly, makes some Christmas insufferable. Plus, a few lesser known pieces made the cut, like ‘In the Bleak of Midwinter,’ a melancholy, but hauntingly beautiful holiday selection well worth hearing.
‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’ makes an appearance as the most stripped down recording on the record. It serves Nole well, especially given the creative license he takes with the song’s arrangement. Conversely, ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ is one of the most layered productions on ‘Toyland,’ packed with several intense synthesizer sections. It’s a tad eerie and foreboding, as the composition can often be. Nole plays with some gorgeous voicings on the recording, easily making it one of the album’s most memorable moments.
The final two songs on ‘Toyland’ perfectly embody what is so excellent about the album that precedes them. ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ and ‘O Holy Night’ are simply exquisite, both remaining fairly unchanged from their traditional structure. The voice Nole has provided, though, gives an entirely new outlook and tone to these classic hymns. Ultimately, that’s what is so good about ‘Toyland’ - it doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to Christmas music, but it does make it fun to drive again.
Pick up ‘Toyland’ to spin this Christmas season. It’s well worth your time and Nole has, as expected, delivered in spades.