critic’s pick 254: the blind boys of alabama and taj mahal, ‘talkin’ christmas’

talkin' christmasIf the home stretch of the holiday season is leaving you in need of a breather, then take a 40 minute time out for Talkin’ Christmas, an unpretentious but solidly sanctified summit between the Blind Boys of Alabama and Taj Mahal.

Talkin’ Christmas is about as subtle and soulful a holiday session as you will find in what has otherwise been a lean year for new Yuletide. It also deviates from the standard blueprint of many seasonal releases, including the Blind Boys’ own 2003 work, Go Tell It On the Mountain. That album was a collection of star-studded duets that, while highly appealing, made you feel as though the veteran gospel vocal group was serving as a support team for the guest list. Talkin’ Christmas sports only one high profile collaborator – longstanding blues stylist, world music journeyman and frequent Blind Boys touring mate Mahal, and even he frequently takes a back seat role within the record’s lean but tremendously complimentary instrumentation.

In fact, Mahal makes his vocal presence felt on only two songs, both new tunes penned by the Blind Boys, celebrated Stax Records songwriter William Bell and Talkin’ Christmas producer Chris Goldsmith.

The first is What Can I Do?, a sparse pop-soul spiritual that is a fine fit for the jagged expression of Mahal’s singing. The other, There’s a Reason We Call It Christmas, places Mahal aside longtime Blind Boys chieftain Jimmy Carter for a light gospel celebration accented by a discreet Caribbean rhythm.

But Mahal’s presence is felt throughout the album. When he isn’t singing, he is adding bits of guitar, ukulele, harmonica and, on a revivalist, ragtime-infused version of Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn, banjo. The song also employs one of the Blind Boys’ newest stars, falsetto singer Paul Beasley, who later guides the group’s gorgeous harmonies on No Room at the Inn. Mahal and drummer Michael Jerome provide the latter’s only instrumental accompaniment.

The last word, however, goes to Carter. He concludes the record by leading the pack through another original, Merry Christmas, which shuffles along to the second line groove set up by Jerome under a homespun yarn that is earnestly celebratory. “Hope you’re happy in your house,” Carter sings with sage-like candor, “because I’m having a ball in mine.”

Talkin’ Christmas takes its cue from I’ll Find a Way, the 2013 record that restored much of the Blind Boys’ artistic identity after a string of more duet-heavy projects. The new record, curiously, isn’t as wintry sounding as the former work. It is lighter, more unassuming and quietly straightforward, especially in its view of holiday sentiment.

In other words, Talkin’ Christmas is just sayin’.

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