Open Your Ears to some Yuletide A Cappella

At this time of year we are surrounded by the same old familiar Christmas classics playing in every shop, restaurant, and radio station, and so we naturally have a tendency to just tune it all out. However, as we recently explored there can actually be a lot of rich musical detail and depth hiding in original Christmas music.

yule-songs-vol-iiThe latest release from a cappella legends The Swingle Singers (now just “The Swingles”) is a prime example. Looking at the track listing you might well assume it would be another standard Christmas album. But pay attention and open your ears and you’ll be richly rewarded…

I am not a music critic and this isn’t any kind of formal analysis. But I invite you to join me as I listen through to this new album for the first time and see what we can explore with our ears along the way.

Tip: Listen on good headphones! It makes a big difference. Not sure what makes a “good” set of headphones? Good question! Find out here and here.

Gabriel’s Message

I almost decided to write this whole article about just this one track.

It’s a strong clear start, with beautiful sung block chords. The first ten seconds of this track are a mini masterclass in tension and resolution. The deep bass voice helps to create a gorgeous warm sound. Follow how the melody is at times sung solo or by just a few of the voices with accompanying “mmm”s or “oohs”, and at other times is sung by the full group.

This track is ideal for facilitating the kind of a cappella active listening I’ve written about before, where you try to pick apart the voices present and listen for the contribution of each in parallel throughout the song. The variation in which part is leading the verses almost forces your ear to keep flitting about.

In the second verse listen to how the first line (“For known a blessed mother”) meets your expectations, then the chromatic ascent totally skews the harmony of the second line (“and honour”), before a wonderful transition from dark tone to bright and glorious with “Thy son shall be Emmanuel” and a gentle return to expectations for the final line.

Those joyful soprano leaps of a perfect fifth upwards in “My soul shall laud and magnify” in the third verse beautifully embody the spirit of the words, maybe reminding us of Mary visiting Elizabeth and her baby “leaping with gladness”.

In the final chorus (2:10) listen in for how the descending bassline moves the harmony forwards to the track’s gentle, peaceful conclusion.

With Us

The next track is a Swingle original and something very different. Lead vocalist (and composer of this track) Clare Wheeler carries the song, with some backup harmonies in the choruses – but otherwise the rest of the group simply provides a variety of warm beds, decorative effects and vocal percussion to keep the track moving forwards and the lead vocals surrounded comfortably.

The track opens with chimes from a toy musicbox, setting a bright delicate tone that is then matched by the lead vocal and complemented by the broad vocal harmonies through the rest of the track. Listen to the thrumming vocal bed under the lead singer in the first verse, with incredible blending of voices.

Listen to the deep bass drone at 0:58, it could almost be a double bass playing. In the interlude at 1:45 notice the creative use of stereo, with the voices emulating a ping-pong delay effect.

Tidings (The Hampton Court Carol)

Atmospheric reverb and twinkling sound effects open this track with some haunting airy vocals introducing the well-known melody of the chorus of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. You could be forgiven for expecting a very traditional strait-laced rendition of this classic carol but the modern Swingles have something far more adventurous planned.

Suddenly the scene of “carollers on a cold winter’s night” is joined by a strong refrain with very different, almost Arabic flair (reminiscent of Gemiler Giresune from The Swingles’ 2013 Weather to Fly album). This returns between verses and gives the whole track a strange and unusual twist. Pounding drums bring in another wordless but familiar rendition, this time of the verse melody. Listen for how the beat is swung rather than the traditional straight marching beat of this carol, giving it a more exciting modern feel.

The key change around the 2 minute mark feels natural and fitting rather than being a heavy-handed “truck driver’s gear change” and leads into another surprise: a folk string arrangement at a faster pace, bringing us suddenly into a different auditory scene: perhaps an Irish pub on Christmas Eve. After a few bars of this new style the Swingles masterfully introduce the previous vocal arrangement back in and then bring the track to its gentle conclusion, returning to a very traditional and airy performance by carollers.

The Thaw

Another original, this time by Edward Randell with an extract from Debussy. Like With Us, the Swingles provide a beautiful smorgasbord of sounds in the background to support the lead melody, this time the distinctive voice of jazz vocalist Kurt Elling.

As with each track on this album, there is so much going on in each section and so much changes from section to section in the track, you can listen several times and still find new things for your ears to explore.

Personally I love the soaring soprano part which takes the lead between verses, alternating between smooth melodic wanderings and raindrop-like punctuations, like the finest moments of Goldfrapp’s Felt Mountain.

Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind

We’re treated to a lighter jazzy mood with this one. A great plucked bass opening sets the tone immediately and the rest of the track’s lazy rhythms and gorgeous harmonic moments live up to it.

This is a great track for listening to how a single note (i.e. a single singer) can alter a chord and move a progression forwards or add a moment of suspense (e.g. at 0:33).

Another fun exercise here is to try to hear how many voices and parts are present at any given moment. The Swingles’ expert blending can make it tricky to distinguish a single voice from a pair in unison but there are other times where each voice takes its own moment in the spotlight and it can be fun to try tracking them through the course of the song as they weave, blending together and then separating again.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

A stand-out track from the previous Yule Songs EP. If you can listen to the first minute of this track without wanting to snuggle up warm by the fire then… well, maybe you haven’t done a cold winter in London. I remember seeing the Swingle Singers perform this at a gig in December 2011 at the newly-opened Apple Store, Covent Garden – a slightly random venue, but it was certainly a heart-warming performance to remember.

Up to 1:40 the arrangement is fairly straight-forward but listen then to the chords of the first chorus. Another great opportunity to listen out for the voices joining in unison and for single voices altering the held chords like the beautiful resolution at 2:02.

The rhythmic vocal “raindrops”, especially prominent towards the end of this track, are a recurring element across this album, along with the warm thrumming male vocal beds.

Silent Night

The small but gradually-growing group of voices which open this track ease your ears in. Can you follow each voice simultaneously as you listen? It might take a few tries before you can keep track of “where each voice lives” in the harmonies bar by bar.

After the delicate female-led opening, at 1:08 the second verse opens with one of those astoundingly perfect chords which bowled me over in the first track of this album. The beat-by-beat harmonic progression around 1:50 is another beautiful moment, happening subtly underneath as the lead vocal sings the familiar tune.

This track seems to alternate back and forth between predictable traditional harmonies and some more provocative jazzy tension-and-release moments which serve to powerfully draw you as the listener in.

Who knew a beautiful-yet-bland carol like Silent Night could be so interesting?

Forgotten

Like Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind this track heralds a firm change in mood, bringing in a more boisterous and uplifting sound after the soothing track before it. The male vocal harmony which opens the track has a folk flair which reminded me of tracks like Great Big Sea’s General Taylor.

Listen for how the pounding vocal percussion which kicks in is actually pitched, like toms rather than just a kick drum. From the toms to the claps, cabasa “ssh”s and foot stomps, the percussion really sets a folk mood here to match the melody.

I was surprised to learn this is a Swingle original, penned by Oliver Griffiths – it certainly sounds like it could be a long-standing traditional folk song!

The Kings

An original arrangement of We Three Kings of Orient Are, blending the well-known carol with Tchaikovsky’s Arabian Dance. Like the earlier track Tidings this puts an unusual twist on the normal Western style of this carol. Listen particularly 2:00-2:30 how those descending vocal runs in the soprano and alto parts manage to sound like snowflakes falling, yet in a very Eastern way.

The Tchaikovsky comes to the fore in the final section of the song, painting a vivid Oriental scene for the arriving Kings. Perhaps more interesting than this is how the vocal percussion (reverberant pounding drums and lighter flourishes) set a military, almost industrial tone, conveying the regal aspect of the carol’s theme.

O Holy Night

Another wonderful lush arrangement of traditional lead vocal with fascinating bed underneath and complex harmonies making each chorus interesting and distinctive.

Listen out for the glorious modulation up a semitone (1:45) for the final verse.

The performance style is perhaps a bit too Broadway for English ears(!) but O Holy Night is a Christmas song which brings beautiful melody and harmonies with it, and the Swingle arrangement amplifies these elegantly.

Deck The Hall / What Child Is This?

This is an arrangement by Ward Swingle himself and it’s clear from the outset that we’re in for some fun. The energy of this track is infectious from the outset, befitting the carol’s theme. This track is a great exercise in genre appreciation as it moves through a variety of keys, tempos and moods. Where would you draw the line between them and what words would you use to describe each?

What Child Is This is one of my own favourite carols and it’s lovely to hear its haunting melody float above the still-quite-lively bassline here and be carried into a jazzy vocal solo.

Wrapped in White

The final track took me by surprise a bit. It’s great to hear Edward Randell take the lead vocal, and the lo-fi old-timey effect applied in the track’s introduction sets a suitable Sinatra vibe for his performance.

The classic percussive climax leading in to the second verse at 1:37 ushers in a steady jingle-bell percussion part. The lyrics paint a variety of Christmas scenes. Unlike other tracks on this album the backing harmonies aren’t particularly challenging to the ear: the chords mostly do what you would expect, to support the melody.

From its component parts it would be easy for this track to come across as cheesy but it steers well clear of cliché and really won me over – I think just because it is so expertly and tastefully executed. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for a pun about white noise.


I hope you’ve enjoyed listening through to this album with me. It’s too soon to be able to call this new album a classic, but it will certainly be on heavy rotation in my home in the years ahead. A true Christmas treat for musical ears.

The Swingles’ Yule Songs vol. II can be streamed on Spotify, or to get full audio quality and support the singers, purchase it from Amazon or iTunes.

Series Information
This is part 24 of 29 in the Open Your Ears series.

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