Kelly McGrath – O Holy Night
Kelly McGrath has been around for a few years now, so there’s no shame in believing we’ve heard the full range of her memorable talents. Her latest single, a cover of the Christmas standard “O Holy Night”, challenges any assumptions we’ve made. McGrath’s professed model for this cover is Jeff Buckley’s seminal interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and you can hear that come across quite clearly in her performance. This is a nominal holiday song recast as the spiritual that it’s always been, but it’s a spiritualism rising above dogma or doctrine and, instead, speaking to universal human experience in musical form. She pursues a singular vision with this performance and, despite her commercial success, impresses an image of herself upon new and longtime listeners of her work as musical art rather than pure entertainment. “O Holy Night” is a powerful example of a vocal artist working at or near the peak of her powers and bursting into a new realm of expression.
McGrath’s musical backing is built around dream-like swaths of guitar treated with a generous amount of reverb, a steady yet never obtrusive swell of keyboards hanging over the song’s “background”, and some occasional bass notes to add some bottom end to the track. These passages are laid out with such consideration that the available space for the music to breathe enriches the listening experience in a significant way and brim over with undeniable eloquence. The spotlight, obviously, is fixed squarely on McGrath’s voice, but the music has been carefully orchestrated to frame her voice in the best possible way while still making its mark with the listener based on its stand alone merits as a superbly arranged, even magical, composition. It strikes a familiar chord, but yet doesn’t sound like any version of “O Holy Night” you’ve heard before.
McGrath’s emotional and thoughtful singing will send chills down your spine and never wallows in clichéd over-sentimentalizing. As mentioned in the first paragraph, McGrath approaches this song as a spiritual of sorts while still paying close attention to its dramatic possibilities with a warm production job investing every note. This single is a virtual case study in how a performer can pour so much passion into a vocal performance without ever once straining for effect – you can hear the commitment in every line of the song and the deliberate approach she takes to interpreting the lyrics for her audience doesn’t dilute the song’s power, but accentuates it and brings it most piercing emotional qualities to the surface. “O Holy Night” may be very different from McGrath’s typical fare, but that doesn’t mean it fails to bear all of the hallmarks she’s brought to her best work thus far. This Christmas timed release deserves consideration as being among her most accomplished performances recorded so far. It shows an artist who is quite at home with surprising her audience and challenging whatever preconceptions they have about her artistic vision.