Sound Advice Reviews
Here Come the Holidays
Haul out the holly ... it's that time of year when, whether snow falls through the air where you are or not, you're sure to be buried in a blizzard of Christmas music in the air. There are some "fresher footprints" in the musical snow as well as old chestnuts reheated and re-treated. As we're publishing the day after World AIDS Day, let's begin with the annual CD benefiting Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, with singers recruited mostly from current casts of Broadway shows.
VARIOUS BROADWAY PERFORMERS
Here's the annual collection of holiday music, mostly songs that have had very long runs and annual "revivals" in our world. Sometimes, the treatments chosen reflect the sensibilities/style of the show they perform in, sometimes they opt for a more straightforward cup of holiday cheer or a break from Broadway brassiness to veer to the sincere hymn. Like the contents of the sack on Santa's back, it's always a mixed bag.
As an admirer of the series, it strikes me that this year's crop is not the cream of the entire oeuvre, with somewhat less originality and humor. It's more reserved and with a pronounced emphasis on the sacred songs, although not 100% the most church-like, reverential approach. For example, the Rock of Ages company clearly rocks out with "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" and with American Idiot you'll hear the cast members wail their way through "Do You Hear What I Hear?" with increasingly fierce force. It may not be a silent night and wholly peaceful night, but allow for the possibility of rock influencing a gospel style, and it works quite well. Blessedly, these don't sound tired or, worse, mocking. Many tracks are robust with the holiday happy hooting hoorays and hallelujahs on overdrive, but all is calm, all is light when Bernadette Peters slows down to mellow mesmerizing mode front and center for "Jul, Jul, Strålande Jul" ("Wonderful Peace"), joined by some of her cast members from A Little Night Music as the chorus. It's a prayer and is also about the Yule (jul) log, and you'll note it's sung in the original Swedish, since their musical takes places in Sweden. Also sticking close to "home," the cast of Billy Elliot stays with their Newcastle dialect and subject matter, adding some special lyrics to reference the show, with "Another Geordie Christmas," and this long track morphs into a super-peppy music hall style by the end for many "one more time" repeats of its sing-along-style chorus. Also in overdrive is a relentless forced marriage of Jerry Herman's Mame song "We Need a Little Christmas" with "The Best of Times" from his score for La Cage aux Folles, with that show's cast members belting (Christine Andreas), croaking, carrying on and carousing (Kelsey Grammar, Douglas Hodge and company, respectively).
On some tracks, one starts to wonder how many times musicians and singers can go to the same well and come up with water than seems fresh rather than spiked with caffeine and spice or boiling over just to be "different." Now and then, a back-to-basics, uncomplicated rendition pops up whereHallelujah!the awe and respect associated with the birth of the Christ child and the promise of peace shine through. Perhaps the best vocal case in this category is Patrick Ortiz and Jace Coronado from West Side Story who duet and are accompanied by Kevin Kuhn on guitar for a gorgeous "O Come All Ye Faithful" (in English and Spanish, a nod to that show's inclusion of some Spanish used in the revival). The other show with a prominent dose of Spanish sticks with that language in a high energy celebration of the Christ child's birth, "¡Vengan!"
There is a bit of one-joke shtick with a (not-currently-on-Broadway) company of My Fair Lady, who include some in-character dialogue. The set-up is that Higgins is frustrated yet again as his fair Eliza doesn't fare too well in blending in with the chorus on "Joy to the World," bringing little joy to her dialect coach as her thick cockney accent sticks out until, by George, the miracle of Christmas or something lets it disappear. On the next track, it's a wonderful respite after the boisterousness to settle back with a gorgeous instrumental medley of carols by the Broadway Strings, players from various pits on Broadway combining their talents.
There's a sumptuous orchestra and choral sound for this year's contribution by cast members from the longtime Broadway resident The Phantom of the Opera performing "Noel Nouvelet." Jason Danieley and Marin Mazzie and the company of Next to Normal get musically calmly, satisfyingly next to normal with a pretty "What Child Is This?" Anything but normal is the nuttiness and off-the-wall wackiness that befits the grandma of The Addams Family and the irrepressible comedienne who plays her, Jackie Hoffman. She leads a snide "It's Chanukah," which she co-wrote with Lon Hoyt. It's the one nod to the Jewish holiday here. There are fewer secular songs this year and, whether or not the singers are taking a cue from some aspect of a Broadway show, there's some splendid singing. The gusto and theatricality injected into the old standbys makes this stand out when compared to holiday music that's wimpy, bland or congealingly sugar-coated treatments. Energy and/or elegance abounds by and large on this double-disc set.
It's a Christmas present in itself to have Shirley Jones in the recording booth again after singing in various mediums, including film versions of classic Broadway shows, decades ago. Although certainly she is singing noticeably carefully and more lightly nowadays, those of us who have long had her voice in our heads will recognize her distinct qualities and grace. A Christmas album seems like a good fit, as the nostalgia associated with Christmas celebrations makes the familiar "old friend"'s sound sound right. If something else hear rings a distant Christmas bell, it may be a revisiting of her one solo number from the Partridge Family holiday album of her TV mom sitcom days of yore. It's "The Christmas Song" and as she warmly sings about the "chestnuts roasting on an open fire," the years melt away in that fire somewhat, too. Although she's singing less legato throughout the CD, without the shimmering soprano, she is still agreeably sweet. And, of course, the keys are not stratospheric. It's particularly noticeable on one track where she kind of talk-sings with a startlingly husky quality on "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" Other tracks are more rewarding as she gets "up there" for some moments or is just calmly snuggling into the holiday spirit and good cheer with an easygoing manner. She's good company and sounds contentedly involved in a no-fuss comfort zone of pretty melodies on "Silver Bells" with a bit of her silvery sound here and there.
Recorded in Branson, Missouri with the pro Les Brown, Jr. Band, things move along rather briskly, with five of the dozen tracks clocking in at under three minutes. All is calm, all is bright, with "Silent Night" and "O Holy Night" as the only sacred numbers. The title tune, with bandleader Brown's music and his lyric collaboration with Carol Raczka and Pat L. Patterson, starts off with homespun images of a low-key Christmas with the speaker spending time in her robe and satisfied with simple pleasures, and ends with the last verse's lyric reminding us that Christmas is not about presents but about the message of love via the Christ child. Like almost everything on the CD, it's delivered gently and without hard sell or hard work or heavy-handedness. Vocally, some of the "heavy lifting" is done by a prominent chorus of three male and three female voices singing many of the lines, but rather misrepresented on the credits as "Background Vocals." They are often in the foreground. Tony Orlando makes a guest duet appearance encouraging Shirley to stay perhaps till dawn rather than face the blizzard in that old Frank Loesser seducer, "Baby, It's Cold Outside." It may be a bit tired, but they avoid O.D.-ing on smarm or coyness unlike others who have canoodled their way through this duet.
A lovely nod to Broadway and Richard Rodgers' melodies (saluted in a full-length separate album also released this year, which I'll be covering in an upcoming column) that were her early bread and butter and buttery sound is The Sound of Music's "Edelweiss." Perhaps it's an honorary Christmas song with its reference to the mountain plant looking like a "blossom of snow" that is "small and white." And speaking of white and perennial, Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" ends the CD with a simple wish that sounds heartfelt. Her warm sound and warm personality still warm up a cold winter's night with cheer and sincere, kindly sounds that sound comfortingly familiar for surely a merrier, more musical Christmas.
[It should be noted that A Touch of Christmas is labelled "Copy-Protected."]
With 22 tracks of mostly off-the-beaten track holiday fare alternating between Christmas and Chanukah, mixing the pleas for peace with comic relief, it's a relief to find these folk song-focused selections on Just One Angel. While some have appeared on other CDs, such as Janis Ian's arresting and disarmingly pure "Joy" and Sue Matsuki's tenderly rendered tale of a family's trials and tribulations from the viewpoint of the "Christmas Angel" decoration observing and remembering, many are heard on disc for the first time. The vast majority are sung by those who wrote the music and lyrics. (In the case of "Christmas Angel," the melody is by Paul Steffan.) You have till the last few tracks to hear more familiar things with the occasional cameo appearance of an old holiday tune woven into an arrangement as a mood-setting intro or reference point. As we get to the end, there are a couple of exceptions, with David Ippolito, known to many as "that guitar man from Central Park," persuasively singing and playing the gentle prod and nod to the carpe-diem point in "This Moment." It's one of the best-known and loved songs by the prolific John Wallowitch, the late cabaret entertainer and songwriter to whom the CD is dedicated. Also near the close, saluting the close of the year, is the traditional "Auld Lang Syne." It's arranged by James Taylor, who makes an unbilled appearance as his sister, Kate Taylor, sings a cathartic and captivating lead vocal.
Otherwise, much that's here will be new to many ears, with quirky story songs and a few timeless-sounding newer folk songs by neo-folkies (in the best sense of the word; talent and sincerity abound) focused on peace and an end to war. Three of these are grouped together, as are songs about Chanukah and Christmas in specific locations and the two songs with "angel" in the title (the album's title tune is the CD's sole instrumental). But things don't become totally segmented and predictable as moods and subjects change just for a track for variety without becoming part of one of those patterns.
Only the sublime vocal group The Accidentals appears twice: once on their own with the bittersweet, feet-in-reality "I'm Not Going Home for Christmas" (Jim Vincent/ Bill Mitchell) and to back Christine Lavin, also the CD's producer and curator, with her kind of "let's face the facts" observation about what might be the best and psychologically healthy way to deal with things "When You're Single at Christmastime." Like many of her songs, it's witty with a wink and down to earth. Far from earth is a not-so-scientifically guaranteed lesson of how "Merry Christmas" is translated into the Martian language, in case you plan to celebrate "Christmas on Mars." It's an adorable little chuckler, with a tongue-tingling jumble of quick sounds (for the record, the subtitle is the translation: "Eenie Kaveenie Klibadavac"say that three times fast);. Roy Zimmerman is the singer-songwriter. Closer to home and just as close to the funnybone is the litany of affectionate stereotyping for "Christmas in Brooklyn" with its light lionizing of the local "goombah" and neighborhood pals, delivered in a Brooklyn accent with dem sounds in dese lyrics droned by dah songwritah, Erik Frandsen.
Also making appearances are actor Jeff Daniels with a cute kid's invitation, "Won't You Please Stay for Christmas, Santa Claus?," and Grammy winner Julie Gold with her earnest "Merry Christmas Peace Peace Peace" whose title is self-explanatory. The album is a treasure trove of that world of holiday songs that are not the "usual suspects" on hundreds of Christmas albums. Avoiding sentiment in some comical cases or cutting to the bone for the thoughtful ones, it's a welcome change of pace.
There are both pleasures and puzzlements in Suzanne Carrico's CD, a sugar-coated collection of Christmas confectioneries, carols and winter weather advisories in songa debut album which seems to have taken a while to arrive down the chimney. Although her cabaret show on the lyrics of Sammy Cahn back in 2007 brought her the MAC Award for Outstanding Female Debut, she hadn't released a CD and has done one other cabaret run since. However, she's returned like a Christmas-smiling Lazarus, back at Manhattan's Metropolitan Room where she opens an engagement tonight, featuring songs from her recording.
Lyricist Cahn is in Suzanne's thoughts still with his collaboration with composer Jule Styne, "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" making a sensible cold weather companion in a medley with Frank Loesser's "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Her singing companion is real-life boyfriend, co-executive producer of the album and director of her live show, Booth Daniels. In his own cabaret appearances, he's been a manically kinetic, edgy comic goofball, but he sounds surprisingly subdued, straightforward and not very playful at all in what is normally a seduction tug of war. Her vocals are cooingly pretty, but she sounds pretty unconcerned, too. Thus, the comedy goes out the door as the couple in the story stay inside, but the fireside chat warms up by the end. The track which follows, Irving Berlin's "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," rosily but redundantly reinforces the implied intent.
Tempi chosen for the selections are sometimes bewildering. "What Child Is This?" takes the "Greensleeves" melody at an oddly brisk, insensitive pace so that not only does it make her seem racing to keep up, but causes her to swallow her words and have them be shorn of their reverence for the baby Jesus. All that gets brought out is the haste in "haste, haste to bring him laud." It's a wasted opportunity for one who can sing nicely on some selections, including the ability to perform in a more classical vein as she does, finally, on "Gesu Bambino." Also befuddling is her "My Favorite Things," whose images are sung with little fondness suggesting favor, inserted in snippets between segments of "Carol of the Bells" heartily intoned admirably by a chorus, with the effect being more like someone with ADD with a TV remote control switching constantly between two televised Christmas specials.
Although the slowed-down, almost downbeat tempo and tone for "Silver Bells" also provides a "huh?" moment at first hearing, it turns out to be a success and indeed the highlight of the album. Relaxed at this pace with the lyric, a line of which gives the CD its title, she has the time to show her acting skills and color the words with feeling. Thus, we can "see" and "hear" the sights and sounds as she lingers lovingly over these other favorite things. Accompanied by the masterful and sensitive guitarist Sean Harkness (one of just four musicians on the albumdrummer Dan Gross and bassist Jason DiMatteo being the others), "Some Children See Him" is likewise thoughtful and tender. Contrastingly, the build-build-build of "Do You Hear What I Hear?" with the relentless and relentlessly predictable even drumming on the "The Little Drummer Boy" drummed into your brain might make you want to pa-rum-pum-pum-pummel yourself over the head.
Although there are some vocal moments that sound harsh, strained or otherwise problematic, many are sweetly turned out and there's some abundantly merry holiday cheer in Suzanne's sound and personality. Arrangements and keyboard playing are by Don Rebic, a strong and accomplished musician who contributes a fine original song, "Merry Christmas to Us All." Suzanne sings it with some depth and perceptiveness, highlighting a bittersweet quality and a longing for elusive happiness and kindness among people. That, too, is "what Christmas time means" in the bigger picture, not just kids waiting for material gifts from "The Man with the Bag"although that perky song is one of the cheery, fun items unwrapped here, too.