Shauna Burns – O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
The venerable Christmas standard “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” from her latest album A Winter Gathering gets dusted off by singer/songwriter Shauna Burns just in time for the 2017 holiday season. Burns, unlike many contemporaries and peers however, isn’t just offering up a song checking off an assortment of boxes. She gives listeners, instead, one of the more vibrant Christmas covers in recent memory in such a way that it expands on the possibilities of her music and redefines what the possibilities are when tackling such material. She has set the same consistently high standard for herself since her 2005 debut and the twelve years since her first release has seen her continually explore her sound and skill set in hopes of producing ever more illuminating work. She has succeeded wildly with this version of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and it sets proudly alongside her earlier recordings as a vivid reflection of her capabilities.
She introduces the song carefully. There’s some piano lines slowly coalescing into a melody and accompanied by violin flourishes. The violin recedes a little in the mix and takes on a supporting role once Burns’ voice enters. She has a technically excellent voice, there’s no question of that, but it isn’t the sort of technical excellence bereft of emotion – instead, emotions comes through in every line and she’s unafraid to take chances with her voice while still nailing every note. The arrangement has some subtle highs and lows built into its progression, complete with a smattering of percussion and keyboards alike, and Burns never fails to bring her vocal into total agreement with those moments. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” has language far removed, in some respects, from what we are used to in modern music, but it never proves to be any obstacle for Burns’ phrasing – she intonates clearly and doesn’t attempt to compete with the instrumentation. Instead, the song has a level of unity that many bands and performers aspire to, but few reach.
The song has an ideal length, clocking in a little under five minutes, and it’s ample time for Burns to explore both her vocal range and a plethora of music ideas without ever overwhelming the listener. The song’s pacing swells at key junctures, but there’s a careful modulation defining the performance as a whole ensuring singer and musicians alike apply just the right amount of force to what is obviously a very delicate musical experience. It’s likewise commendable how Burns is able to invoke whiffs of supernatural wonder through the song’s lyric and arrangement without ever obviously erring on the side of religiosity. Instead, this is a song capable of conjuring the spirit of the season rather than anything smacking of dogma. Shauna Burns’ artistry has reached a new peak with this release and, if we can take it as a hint of the riches present on A Winter Gathering, Burns’ latest release is likely her best yet.