Christmas might be ‘the most wonderful time of the year’ – although for 2020 that’s debatable – but it’s a terrible time for music. With a few exceptions, Christmas albums should be approached with caution – and disposed of carefully.
However, there are some that are worth their weight in gold, frankincense and myrrh, such as Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You and Atlantic’s Soul Christmas.
To that [Christmas] list, we can now add Kelly Finnigan’s A Joyful Sound, and it’s no coincidence that the previous two records mentioned were big inspirations for him when it came to writing and recording his festive offering.
“I really love a lot of Christmas music – I grew up hearing it in my house every year and, as I got older, I enjoyed finding more obscure titles by little-known groups,” says Finnigan who is the frontman of San Francisco-based, psychedelic retro-soul band Monophonics.
Earlier this year, Monophonics released the brilliant album It’s Only Us, which had a classic, soulful sound that was heavily influenced by Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye and Rotary Connection, and tackled socio-political issues in its lyrics, as well as affairs of the heart.
For A Joyful Sound, which is Finnegan’s second solo album and sees him working with a whole host of guest musicians from the contemporary soul scene, including the Dap-Kings, Finnigan has mostly stuck to the same blueprint, although he’s toned down the dark, psychedelic vibe. It is Christmas, after all. He’s also chosen to remind us that although the holidays are a time for celebration, for some people it’s a struggle.
When the pandemic struck, he hunkered down in his studio and made the album. He says that the process was interesting and challenging, as he had to get into a Christmas headspace while the world was suffering from the impact of Covid-19, as well as a recession and protests, due to racial and social tension.
If that wasn’t hard enough, he also had to deal with troubles in his personal and professional life, but he says making the record was therapeutic and helped to distract him from other things that he had on his mind.
Straight away we’re plunged into a gorgeous winter wonderland with the harmonic and symphonic Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys pop of the title track, which is also reprised at the end of the album.
The classy and timeless soul ballad, ‘Heartbreak For Christmas’, which oozes with sax appeal, already sounds it’s like destined to be a festive favourite for many years to come, while ‘No Time To Be Sad’ is decorated with horns and lush, cinematic strings that could’ve come from a classic ‘70s soul album, like What’s Going On or Super Fly.
‘Just One Kiss’ is a delicious helping of festive funk, with wah-wah guitar and manic piano and trumpet, as well a groovy bassline to die for.
Finnigan croons his way through the organ-soaked slowie, ‘Waiting On The Big Man’, which also features some nifty flute. For the uplifting ‘The Miracle Is Here’, he comes across like Jackie Wilson – there’s even more organ and a wonderful, Southern Soul-style horn arrangement.
On the romantic and yearning ‘The Only Present Is Me’, he tells a loved one: “I’m coming home for Christmas, so save some room under the tree. I promise you my baby that the only present is me.” Honestly, he could make a plastic angel weep.
Unlike many Christmas songs, all of the tracks on A Joyful Sound avoid being syrupy or sickly – this is sweet, authentic soul music with a warm sound and rich production that has a vintage feel, but is also fresh.
Speaking about the album, Finnigan says: “I am very proud of this record and the stories and moments that live in the music. I believe it stands up next to other great holiday records and will become a classic in the years to come.”
It’s hard to disagree. A Joyful Sound is a very generous gift from him to us and it’s easy to get wrapped up in it. Treat yourself to a soulful and joyful Christmas soundtrack – you deserve it.