With a crystal-clear voice and an encyclopedic knowledge of music history, Elizabeth Mitchell is a somewhat unlikely but completely essential children's music performer. Instead of offering cloying, repetitive nursery rhymes, Mitchell makes records with all the craft, awe, and nuance of the classic artists who inspired her from her early indie days on down the path that led her to her tenure with the Smithsonian Folkways label and collaborations with folk stalwarts like Dan Zanes. Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs in and Out of the Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook is more evidence of Mitchell's unique and meticulous talents, collecting her inventive arrangements of 24 holiday tunes, Christmas carols, and children's songs from Seeger's 1953 songbook American Folk Songs for Christmas. Rather than the typical sleepy or overly serious renditions of well-known Christmas songs, Mitchell's readings come through with bright curiosity, adventurous instrumentation, and the understated sense of playful humor that flows through her whole catalog. Soulful, gospel-tinged tunes like "Baby Born Today" and the raving "January, February (Last Month of the Year)" are paired with somber, snowy string arrangements on "Ain't That A-Rockin' All Night" and the glisteningly eerie harp of "Sing Hallelu." Though over an hour of material, the lengthy running time never drags, but flows through various modes of sound, from icy, Björk-like minimal arrangements to full-on barn rock takes on Christmas tunes à la the Band. Mitchell is joined by her husband and longtime creative partner, Daniel Littleton, on most songs, as well as their daughter Storey, not to mention a host of folk luminaries such as John Sebastian, Amy Helm, Dan Zanes, Natalie Merchant, and even Peggy Seeger. The thoughtful arrangements, production, and choice of material results in a one-of-a-kind Christmas album, its warm and timeless air so strong and carefully assembled that it's easy to forget it's a holiday-themed album at all.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas