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Keening for the Dawn

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Bell rings out worthy Advent album

Keening for the Dawn   
Steve Bell

As December approaches, it seems obligatory for musicians to release a Christmas album. In today’s struggling music industry, these holiday albums present musicians a rare, not-to-be-missed opportunity: guaranteed record sales. Loyal fans will gobble up any such offerings in order to hear their favourite artists’ take on Christmas, Christian or not.

What’s not so common is an album that stands out as a worthy musical creation, not just a nibble for the fanbase. Steve Bell’s Keening for the Dawn does just that. An ambitious mix of classical, roots, blues, and spoken word skilfully combine with the accomplished guitar playing and vocal delivery for which the Juno Award winner is known.

These 11 traditional carols, covers, and originals are easy on the ears, setting a soft mood perfect for background music at holiday family gatherings, without falling prey to cheery Christmas clichés. The songs themselves, however, and the attention devoted to crafting them, deserve a much closer listen.

Musically, lyrically, and thematically, Keening for the Dawn is a rich journey. Moving reflectively from Advent through  Epiphany, it encompasses the story and experience of Christ’s coming with a depth and scope not often discovered.

Bell collaborates with British poet Malcolm Guite for several of the tracks’ lyrics, and the result is highly satisfying and intense. While many collaborations between singer/songwriters and accomplished poets result in awkward phrasing and alienating pretension, Bell’s and Guite’s skills converge into a perfect marriage of poetry and melody. When you hear rhymes like “iconic” and “embryonic” sung fluidly, you know the songs are in the hands of masters. Do not try this at home.

One aspect of the album that jarred me out of reverence was the spoken-word sections, as in “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Though I respect the ambitiousness of these poetic interjections to the traditional Advent story, they never quite won me over from an aesthetic point of view. My ear can’t seem to handle spoken word inserted into an otherwise entirely musical piece.

However, highlights far outweigh any drawbacks: some of these songs are fantastic on their own, including the title track, and “Refugee.” Especially “Refugee” – that song alone is worth the purchase price.

I already had enough Christmas albums in my list of must-plays this season, and wasn’t looking for another. Keening for the Dawn accomplishes so much in expressing the anticipation, joy, and meaning of Jesus’ birth in a beautiful and unique voice that I have been forced to add it to the list!

In addition to the musical talents of Juno award winner and Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee Medal recipient Steve Bell, the album draws on Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra string players; jazz pianist Mike Janzen; B.C. music producer Roy Salmond on pump organ, accordion, ukulele, and 12-string acoustic; and others.
—Jeremy Penner is director of worship and media at Portage Avenue (MB) Church, Winnipeg, and plays keyboard in Hope Atlantic, making him bandmates with Steve Bell’s son.

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