Just in time for Christmas, Jason Manns released a new CD: Christmas with Friends. It's aptly named---and fortunate for us, most of his friends are very familiar to the Supernatural Family. There's appearances from Richard Speight Jr., Julie McNiven, Rob Benedict, Misha Collins, and of course both Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles. It's an intimate and warm album that captures what the Christmas season is all about: friends and family and joy. While listening to it, we can envision all of them gathering together to sing these songs. Christmas with Friends puts a heartfelt spin on these old favorites--and makes them new again. It's like a big hug from Jason Manns---and all of his very special friends!
Grab some hot chocolate or some egg nog---just watch out if Sam spikes it---and put on your headphones. Let's get into the Christmas mood!
The first track features Richard Speight Jr. on a familiar favorite from Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. Originally sung by Burl Ives, playing the appropriately named snowman, Sam, this perennial favorite has been covered several times over. Jason Manns begins the track, singing the lyrics as written, turning this song into a round robin. His voice is nice and bright, making it a nice introduction to this cheerful album. As he concludes, Speight Jr. takes up the baton---but doesn't stick to the script. Rather than singing the well known line “have a cup of cheer,” Speight Jr. asks everyone to have “an ice cold beer.” Speight Jr's voice has a different timbre than Manns---and his style is a bit more rustic, but it makes the song come alive and fun. After he ends on a rousing note, holding the word, “year,” he tells Manns, in that deadpan snark we all know from conventions so well, “Take that Manns.” Manns starts to laugh, and we can't help but see them sitting together having a great time with this song---and he ends the track telling Richard with laughter in his voice, “Nailed it.”
It's a fantastic opening, certainly making us feel like having a “Holly jolly Christmas this year.”
The second track is “Winter Wonderland.” Originally a poem written by Richard Smith, a tuberculosis sufferer, the concept emerged as he watched children playing in the snow outside his window. And that quirky reference to Parson Brown? It's a Pennsylvanian term for any Protestant priest not associated with any parish or church---and one that would perform ceremonies such as marriages if no other priest was available. It wasn't until after Smith's death that it was transformed into a song by Felix Bernard. It's been covered by artists ranging from Rat Packers, Bing Crosby and Dean Martin, to Barry Manilow and Elvis Presley. On Christmas With Friends, it's a delightful solo by Jason Manns. He puts a jazzy spin on this classic, introducing a rich and warm bass line to accompany his clear voice. The song is upbeat, making us see all the classic imagery this song always evokes. Through his cheerful singing, we can almost see the lane, the snow covered meadow---and the snowman named Parson Brown. It gives the song great whimsy as it celebrates the wonder and joy of the winter season. Manns makes this fanciful track come alive in his sincere delivery, giving it a freshness that delights.
The third track features Julie McNiven, best known to Supernatural fans as the angel, Anna. She joins Manns at the piano for a playful update on the song “Santa Baby.” The song is one of the first novelty songs for the season, written for Eartha Kitt, a nightclub performer in the 1950s. It's been covered by everyone from Taylor Swift to Natalie Merchant---and most famously Madonna. Manns freshened this track up by taking its melody and transforming it into a boogie woogie piano round that suits not only the tone of their version---but McNiven's light and clear voice. They duet beautifully on this track, making the lyrics fun and cheerful. We can almost see them sitting on the bench together, Manns playing the song and McNiven swaying along as they sing their respective parts. There's a whimsical flair to their version of “Santa Baby” that leaves us all with a warm smile.
Manns proves that he's good at matching tracks to singers as he chooses the wistful “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” for Jensen Ackles. The song, written during World War II, has an undeniable melancholic flavor. It made its debut in the movie Meet Me In St Louis, starring Judy Garland. Her iconic voice---and the song's subject matter---connected well with soldiers stationed overseas, longing for home during the height of the war. Unlike the first two tracks to feature one of his friends, Manns allows Ackles to take the lead here. His rich baritone gives the song a heartfelt tone, making it moving and graceful. It captures all of the haunting nature of this classic. There's a nostalgic yearning in his delivery that leaves our hearts aching by the song's conclusion. In the beginning, Ackles is soft, giving the song time to build towards its powerful crescendo. As his voice hits the refrain of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” it becomes an earnest plea to the listener. We can picture so clearly Ackles sitting with his eyes closed as he sings this poignant song while Manns strums the soft guitar accompaniment. It makes for an intimate scene---one we feel privileged to have been invited to.
Jason Manns takes the lead on the following track, “I'll Be Home For Christmas.” Another track written during World War II, the song was first recorded by Bing Crosby after nearly being scrapped by the music labels. They felt the lyric, “I'll be home for Christmas/If only in my dreams,” would be too sad for the men overseas. Instead, it became a hit, requested most at Crosby's USO appearances. Manns takes this wartime favorite and gives it a personal touch. It's merely him and his acoustic guitar, singing softly a heartfelt and moving song. There's a sorrow in his delivery, capturing all of the emotions of those separated from their loved ones at this time of the year---be it from the ongoing wars or other absences. The soft guitar adds an elegance, making it a haunting track.
Continuing with another World War II Christmas standard, Manns selects “White Christmas” for Jared Padalecki. This is the A-Side to Crosby's “I'll Be Home For Christmas,” and was written by Irving Berlin during the darkest days of the war. Due to its huge success, it eventually spawned a movie of the same name, starring Crosby. While the original may be big and bold in the 1940s style, Manns strips this perennial favorite down to fit Padalecki's soft baritone. The two duet in a round robin with Padalecki starting the track. As he starts singing softly, we can't help but feel that “White Christmas” has become a sweet lullaby. Padalecki's voice has a tenderness that makes the song warm and inviting. Manns and Padalecki's voices compliment one another well, too. There's a gentle elegance that fits the sincere lyrics beautifully. The quiet accompanying guitar adds to this, making for a refreshing and much more intimate version.
To carry over the lullaby theme, Manns selects “The Little Drummer Boy” for Rob Benedict. Best known to the Supernatural Family as the prophet, Chuck, Benedict also is the front man for Louden Swain and the popular house band, Elastic Waste Band, on the convention circuit. The carol is believed to be based upon a Czech tune adapted by Harry Simeone, K. K. Davis, and Henry Onorati. Originally meant to be a lullaby already, Manns emphasizes this, making the song soft and inviting. Benedict's tenor is quiet and sweet as he sings the familiar words. We can almost see them approaching the manger with only their drum to play for the newborn king---and the soft percussion accompaniment adds to this imagery provided by their well matched voices. Rather than being brash or loud---as drums can be at times---there's a reverence, too, in this performance that makes it new and light and cheerful.
In a change of tempo, Manns goes for the playful and often nonsensical “12 Days of Christmas” with Misha Collins. The origins---and meaning---of this song dates back to Elizabethan England. The lyrics were a subversive method for Catholics, banned in England after an Act of Parliament in 1558, to teach future generations the catechisms. Each gift corresponds to a Catholic element---the four calling birds are the four Gospels and seven swans a swimmin' are the seven sacraments for instance. The song has been covered by nearly every generation since---with much of its religious undertones largely forgotten. Manns makes the version on Christmas With Friends playful, light, and airy as he duets with Collins. As they list the crazy gifts given to them by their “true love” we can see them acting each one out for the audience gathered around the fireplace. We can see them swim and leap and dance and milk at each repetition, making this song fun and gleeful. The simple version of just singing and guitar makes this old track new again.
Manns brings in another friend, known to the Supernatural Family through her husband, Matt Cohen. Mandy Musgrave makes an appearance on the track, “Baby, It's Cold Outside.” The song, written by Frank Loesser in 1944, is said to have been his signal to his party guests that it was time for the night to come to an end. He sold the rights to MGM, and it has been covered by numerous artists and put into several movies since. Dean Martin famously covered it on his Winter Romance album from 1959. The song features a male and female duet with the parts typically played by those specific genders. Manns takes this and reverses it, having Musgrave sing the typical male part while he takes the female. It makes the track fun and modern. Musgrave has a soft and clear soprano voice that meshes well with Manns's rich tenor, giving the track another layer of depth. He keeps it simple here, too, with guitar and percussion accompaniment that adds to its playfulness. We can imagine them swaying as they sing this song together, warm smiles on their faces. Their dual closing of the song shows just how well their voices blend, letting it end on a high note.
The second to last track, “It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” continues the joyful run of songs. Penned by Meredith Wilson in 1951, the song has been famously covered by Perry Como and Bing Crosby. Crosby's version has a grand jingle bell opening and has a rich orchestral accompaniment that makes it famous. Manns, however, keeps it simple as he has with all the other songs on Christmas With Friends. It's just him and his guitar, playing a song for his friends. He gently keeps time by tapping his guitar along with the rhythm, adding a fun flair. Its simplicity adds a personal touch that makes the song fresh and light---and it really allows the lyrics to take center stage, delivered in Mann's rich voice.
The final track is a stirring rendition of “Silent Night.” “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” is a German carol written in 1818 by Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber, and was originally meant to be accompanied by guitar. In 1914, at the start of the grueling trench warfare of World War I, German soldiers started to sing this German carol, leading to the famous Christmas Truce of 1914. It led to a smattering of short lived armistices on the Western Front. The last guest on Christmas With Friends is also Supernatural adjacent. Amy Kuney had an appearance as a folk singer on Gilmore Girls---a show Jared Padalecki appeared on as Dean Forrester. She's also a music artist in her own right. Manns and Kuney duet on this beautiful hymn, giving the album a gentle close. Their voices are hushed as they sing the lyrics, making the song graceful and poignant. Kuney's deep alto blends well with Mann's voice, making their harmonies that richer. It's an elegant finish.
Christmas With Friends captures all the wonder, joy, nostalgia, wistfulness, and beauty that the holiday season has to offer---and it proves that Christmas is best when shared with friends and family! So grab your favorite Christmas treat and let this whimsical album lift your holiday spirits. If you haven't picked up your copy yet, you can find Christmas With Friends at www.jasonmanns.com or CD Baby or Amazon.