The holiday themed single “O Holy Night” from Kelly McGrath shouldn’t ever seem like a Christmas throwaway or attempt to cash in on the season. It’s a musically substantive experience made via traditional material that McGrath’s stellar vocals breathes vibrant life into. She adopted Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as a model for how she approached this Christmas standard and the spartan approach pays off by drawing listener’s focus to her voice – the dramatic falling and cresting, evocative phrasing, and full-hearted emotion she pours into the performance is beyond noteworthy; it’s inspiring. It’s the same sort of all out commitment that she’s brought to her material and performances since first debuting and, coupled with her talent, it’s brought her considerable acclaim and more than a little popularity among purists and casual fans alike. “O Holy Night” is more than just a seasonal novelty offering. It’s a recording that can hold its own against the very best of McGrath’s work thus far.
It all hinges on her singing and the singing rates among the best she’s ever committed to a recording. Her phrasing and emotive capabilities are what both casual and hardcore music fans will notice most clearly – she wastes no time attempting to get under out skin with a performance that will move hearts and provide some goose bumps as well. The latter comes about thanks to a recording that finds two musical elements, her voice and the guitar, working together in perfect sympathy. There isn’t a single moment when McGrath’s singing undercuts the six string’s melodic response or vice versa and it ends a case where the whole tallies up as far greater than the individual sum of the song’s parts. “O Holy Night” is a duet of sorts and, evaluated as such, succeeds in every way.
The production doesn’t treat the guitar as second banana to her vocal but, instead, as a partner. It adopts the same approach to effects by adding just enough to bring about some tangible atmosphere but never stretches the listener’s patience with hackneyed sweetness. The song stands on its own and the guitar playing is geared to serve its needs from the first. During the second half of the song, the guitar playing takes some particularly interesting turns while never deviating too far away from the source material and those effects come into play to a far greater degree but, still, remain on the right side of tastefulness. That’s much of the story behind “O Holy Night” – Kelly McGrath has taken on one of the Christmas classics that virtually anyone knows and, instead of framing it reverently, has reshaped it to not just honor the season, but to scratch her creative itch. It’s a winning effort in every respect and shows she continues to push her talent in new and challenging ways a long time removed from her 2007 debut.