We Three Kings arrives like a group of carolers on a quiet winter night.
Mileage inevitably varies when it comes to Christmas music. Even if one observes the holiday (either as a religious or secular one), the popular music that accompanies it can quickly dampen good cheer. The best festive tunes can grow cloying given enough radio play. Then there are plenty of folks who do not celebrate the holiday but still have to march through malls and grocery stores with the same five seasonal tunes on repeat. This must be a kind of hell. Anyone who has worked retail can probably relate. But there must be some charm, deep down, to this music—at least in theory—that keeps it hanging around. A confession: I do love the stuff. And not in an ironic way (mostly) but in embarrassing earnest—when it comes to the good stuff, anyway.
But what of the Christmas album? Part of the charm of Christmas music is in its eclecticism, so when a single artist collects their renditions of seasonal favorites, it is difficult to avoid a certain flat sameness to the style of these tunes. Enter the Roches’ We Three Kings, a 24-track, hourlong collection of Christmas carols. The Roches were a trio of sisters from New Jersey who broke through as background singers for Paul Simon. Instantly recognizable for their soaring three-part harmonies, in 1979 they released their (great) self-titled record. The Roches included “Hammond Song”—one of those perfect works of art that will hopefully endure long after whatever cataclysm brings the current order of things crashing down. But their moment arrived too late, and the rest of their career was mostly spent in relative obscurity (though their soundtrack work on Crossing Delancey in 1988 is among their best).
By 1990, when We Three Kings was released, the rationale for such an album on the Roches’ part might have been a return to their childhood habit of caroling. For MCA, their record label, the hope might have been a holiday-themed boost in sales for the group. This may explain why the record is somewhat at odds with itself. It opens with a rendition of the hymn “Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light,” a song perfectly suited to the harmonies of the Roches. The otherwise gorgeous track is somewhat marred, however, by an overprocessed synth organ. The vocals are high enough in the mix, though, that once they enter, the tinny organ sound recedes. Other tracks are not quite so lucky. “For unto Us a Child Is Born” seems another good match between performer and material, except that the musical accompaniment sounds like one of those preloaded songs on a child’s toy keyboard. Other tracks suffer a similar pairing between pristine vocals and “modern” sounds. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” attempts to create atmosphere by inserting a generic “wind” sound, leading to a similarly boxed effect.
Thankfully, the Roches’ sensibilities win out for the most part. Their two original compositions—“Christmas Passing Through” and “Star of Wonder”—exemplify the best of both sides of their approach. The former incorporates full accompaniment, including, yes, a synthesizer. But because the track was composed to fit the style and sound of the Roches, the friction between the modern and the traditional disappears. The latter original is comprised of unaccompanied vocals. The harmonies take center stage, the singers’ voices merge. The song sounds as if it were 200 years old, as if we have always had it. This a cappella approach is taken in many of the traditional tracks on the record, to stunning effect. “Here We Come a Carolling” and “Jingle Bells” are given vibrant life despite the lack of instrumentation. “The First Noel” and “Joy to the World” develop a sense of the sacred through harmony, without sounding stale.
On songs like “Frosty the Snowman” and “Winter Wonderland” the sisters turn up their Jersey accents and give the tunes an explicitly humorous edge. “Deck the Halls” is sped up and peppered with variations in melody and rhythm to give it a sense of fun. And it does seem that the Roches’ understand that this material should have a sense of fun and comradery to it. Over the course of We Three Kings they demonstrate their knowledge of the breadth of Christmas music. They incorporate the eclecticism of, say, your local radio station, and apply their numerous talents to the interpretation of it.
There are times where We Three Kings tests the patience of the listener, but there are moments of sublime beauty, too. Humor, as well, is tucked in among the synth-laden songs that can drown out what makes the Roches worth listening to. At its best, We Three Kings arrives like a group of carolers on a quiet winter night. They sing as the snow and streetlights crown the dark with halos, and then slip away, serenading further down the block.