Sound Advice Reviews
2021 Sounds of the Holidays, Part 1
In an unpredictable world that could use a lift, we can at least count on the unstoppable arrival of some merry music for the winter holidays. This year, as always, new recordings revisit many of the most frequently chosen oldies; for example, we note that within the crop of five this week, there are three takes on "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and three on "River." But, among the usual suspects, there are some rarities and even some notable debuts.
Like the contents of Santa's sack, warm-voiced Lisa Howard's Christmas collection is a mixed bag, with sparkling items that mostly aim to make you smile. While there are outlier nods to seasonal sadness (Joni Mitchell's "River," bringing some welcome drama to the mostly fluffy festival and "Last Christmas" by George Michael), the downers don't dampen spirits for long. There's a lot of pep and pop here. The musical theatre veteran seems equally adept and game in galloping through glossy pop-rock covers, giving us the sole Broadway number (a nifty romp through Mame's "We Need a Little Christmas") and the smaller stack of things that allow her to exercise her dramatic muscles. This last category includes the lovely memory montage of "The House Where I Grew Up at Christmas" by pianist/arranger Michael Shaieb, who co-produced the recording with Brent Lord.
While there are certifiably vintage things from the 1940s"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Here Comes Santa Claus," and "Sleigh Ride" (lyric added in 1950)more recent decades' songs are heavily sampled. These are lighthearted (some will say lightweight) items strongly associated with the youth-attracting female hitmakers who introduced (and in most cases, wrote or co-wrote them) and their ilk: Mariah Carey, Kelly Clarkson, Ariana Grande, The Waitresses.
The set is absent anything that alludes to the religious roots of what for many is more a homogenized holiday, focused on festive frolics with "parties for hosting, marshmallows for roasting" as the lyric for the gleeful "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" mentions. In the upbeat and tender treatments, her radiant voice is as clear as the projected affection for the "hap-happiest season of all" as the title tune also says. The frothy, more contemporary commercial repertoire may not take much advantage of the lady's acting chops, but her energy and consistently ear-pleasing sound can bring sparkle to even a minor bauble.
Lisa Howard invited an old friend as a guest to her "holiday party": Ain't Too Proud's Derrick Baskin, a castmate from her time in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and he adds extra flair and fun, especially on the fast-paced story-song "Christmas Wrapping" written as a sort-of-grousing, sort-of-rapping (its title was meant as a pun) specialty for The Waitresses to do.
The mostly merry mix features 14 tracks, two of which are song pairings, so there's a lot packed in. Maybe it's not exactly what you'd expect as a follow-up to her solo debut of musical theatre writer William Finn's work, but let's toast the season with some egg nog and enjoy the highlights and high spirits. After Lisa Howard practices what she preaches by going "Home for the Holidays" (her Ohio roots), she'll be hitting the road to play Madame Morrible in Wickedbut I assume not traveling via a "Sleigh Ride" (although that's an invigorating, giddy giddyap musical trip when she takes the reins).
In tailoring something to wrap himself up in for Christmastime, singer/pianist (and songwriter for some tracks) Todd Almond wears his heart on his sleeve. The honesty and vulnerability unapologetically on display make his A Pony for Christmas an emotionally moving listening experience. To my ears, fragility is his strong suit. His sublimely ethereal high notes highlight his sensitivity to the point that when he sings the line inviting us to "hear the angel voices," in "O Holy Night," it also suggests the performer's own soundso arrestingly gorgeous and pure. In pieces referencing the birth of the Christ child in present-tense narratives, the awe and appreciative celebration are sustained with grace and dignity.
While many Christmas collections nowadays don't even allow for a cameo of the religious originsand instead only glorify snowfall and snowmen, sleigh rides and sleigh bells, sticking with the stickiest sentimentality (which will be a plus for some potential customers)that isn't at all the case here. The Almond joy is triggered by the Savior's birth, genuine goodwill, and loving hearts. The jolly gent from the North Pole is MIA in this Girl from the North Country Broadway performer's look at Yuletide. When non-sacred material demands a livelier or looser kind of appreciative delight ("Kind and Generous" by Natalie Merchant), there's energy and drive.
Joni Mitchell's "River" is soaked with the requisite rue and naked melancholy that bring out its full potential of haunting heartbreak and the wish for escape. In hopeful, happy mode, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" is tender and unaffected. The sweet croon with attention to lyrics lets us close our eyes and picture the mentioned "snow and mistletoe and presents" and the anticipated family reunion, as we aim to brush aside the concluding line's caveat ("if only in my dreams"). It's unaffected and uncluttered. All of the above-mentioned pluses and sometimes a splash of quirkiness can be found in the piquant observations in the original songs, such as the one that gives the captivating A Pony for Christmas its title.
Another Almond original, an instrumental called "Christmas Eve," is exquisitely beautiful. It lets us revel in the piano-paired elegant cello playing of the man who also co-produced the whole program with Mr. A.: Peter Sachon. A veteran of many Broadway orchestras, like the also-present violinist Antoine Silverman and bass player Mary Ann McSweeney. Todd Almond will be joined by another Broadway veteran, Betty Buckley, for his performance tonight (Monday, December 13) in Manhattan at Chelsea Table + Stage.
Todd Almond's gift to us is deeper and more delicate than the usual holiday offering, but A Pony for Christmas rewards more careful listening with emotionally riveting and thought-engendering gentleness.
BENNY BENACK III WITH STEVEN FEIFKE BIG BAND
Good things come to those who wait: Back in 2019, after an adrenaline-filled, Christmas-themed performance by singer-trumpeter Benny Benack III with bandleader/pianist Steven Feifke, his partner in swingtime, I asked if a recording of the material I'd just heard was available. I was told that a handful of tracks would be out, digitally, with a hope/plan to expand and have a full-length offering, including the issue of a physical CD, in the future. The future has arrived.
Everything is relative, and that's why the mega-cool Season's Swingin' Greetings has the words "Deluxe Edition" emblazoned on its cover, even though it has only ten tracks. Nevertheless, it still seems quite stuffed with good stuff, and boasts plenty of variety. That variety includes original material, two songs for Chanukah, and fresh takes on the seasonal standbys "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "The Christmas Song" (aka "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire"), "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?," and a slinky "Sleigh Ride," the collection's only instrumental. The excitingly brass-heavy band, smart arrangements, the bonhomie, and the clear, youthful-sounding vocals prevent anything from sounding tired or tepid. When cozy warmth is called for, the band doesn't turn up the heat full blast. Discretion is used. But when the players cut loose, it's the happiest holiday hullabaloo around. (Stay tuned for the instrumental breaks that may feature vibes, flute, Feifke's dapper piano work, and the soaring sounds of Benack and brassmates.)
The cheeky, chuckle-inducing revelation "My Girlfriend Is an Elf" brings out the bouncy Benack's ingratiating humor, singing his own composition. Revealing romance and gratitude, another of his originals, "My Wish List Is You," has his vocal turn followed with a solo by creamy-voiced Alita Moses. (Unfortunately, her name somehow didn't get listed in the credits on this first pressing of the physical CD I was sent.) A smooth Feifke and Benack collaboration, "When Christmas Time Comes Around," is the tale of missing a former girlfriend (and trying not to), then deciding to get back in touch. (I'm guessing that the lady in question is not the aforementioned elf.)
For those on a hunt for Chanukah songs, look no further. "Ma'oz Rzur," many centuries old, sung in Hebrew, is delivered with dignity and in grand style. On the playful side, there's "The Dreidel Song" reimagined with Benack's additional words and whimsy, and the zingy arrangement spun by our two stars that transforms a sing-songy kids' ditty into a splashy showpiece, even upstaging Christmas.
Balancing tradition and creative combustion, sentiment and surprise, the combination of Messrs. Benack and Feifke and polished, dazzling band brings a megawatt holiday glow that lingers. If you're lingering in New York City, you can greet the swingers on Sunday, December 19 at Birdland.
Releasing Christmas music is nothing new for singer Kimberley Locke. The lively performer, who came to some fame thanks to TV's "American Idol," as third-place finisher in the second season, has made holiday songs a happy habit. She issued several Yule songs as singles as well as a full holiday album, simply titled Christmas, in 2007. Her new collection is here: Christmas Is Here, named for a song introduced by a vocalist who was one of its co-writers (and the subject of a recent Broadway bio-musical), Donna Summer. Accompanied by the trio called EMP3, with simple production values, the pop performer's set is full of spunk and cheer, despite the fact that there are merely nine tracks.
Two items deftly delivered put the spotlight on the arrival of that gift-delivering icon in the red suit: "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" and the sly "'Zat You, Santa Claus?" first queried in a Louis Armstrong performance. His wife is saluted with "Mrs. Santa Claus," but it's not the song written by Jerry Herman. This cute hand-clapping ode (writers: Hazel Houle, Lois Steele, Jack Fulton) is all about the woman behind the man behind the beard and her behind-the-scenes help with correspondence, spice-filled brownies, songs, and general organization.
The singer shows her big, belting side wailing "Christmas Without You," while others favor her talents at sweeter, croonier stylings. The endearingly quaint "Waltz of the Walnuts and Plums" is the grand prize winner for charm, totally disarming. And three cheers for the cheery number in praise of "Snow" from Irving Berlin's White Christmas movie score of 1954. Christmas can bring out the sentimental and good old, old-fashioned old soul in entertainers of all ages; that seems proven again here.
The accompaniment and tempo can feel disappointingly too bare-bones thin on a few selections. Decidedly precise plunk!-plunk!-clunk!, mechanical drumbeats make things sound too much like skeletons of "guide" tracks that were intended for later fleshing out, perhaps with more relaxed phrasing. But certainly this is someone whose Christmas spirit is in bloom. That will happen for in-person audiences when she takes the stage tonight (Monday, December 13) in New York City at Birdland and December 23 at The Amber Room Colonnade in Danbury, CT.
BRANDEN & JAMES
When it's time to revel in the reverent side of Christmastime with more formal, elegant, strikingly spare treatments, Branden & James (opera-experienced vocalist Branden James and cellist/pianist James Clark) come to religion's rescue. The majority of the selections on their A Christmas Gift are about what Christmas was intended to be about; the "Infant Holy" born one "Silent Night" is back in the spotlight in those referenced songs and others. Oh, there are a couple of other non-sacred items, too, but they don't feel out of place because they are also done in a dignified, sturdy style, too. And if you listen in track order, from the beginning, you're eased into the religious mode, as the collection begins with Craig Armstrong's hypnotic instrumental "Glasgow Love Theme" from the film Love, Actually, followed by the popular standard "I'll Be Home for Christmas," which instrumentally weaves in "Bring Him Home" from Les Misérables. Next, the matter of Jesus does come to the fore, although I'm assuming you'd probably assume that from the mood and knowing a bit of Italian since "Caro Gesù Bambino" is in that language. After a semi-stalwart soak in the sorrow of Joni Mitchell's "River," it's all about the birth of the Savior except for a cover of a slightly undercover "White Christmas" (because it's sung in Spanish for this collection recorded in Mexico). The only glaring omission here is in the packaging that neglects to credit songwriters.
Partners in music and marriage, these sublime-sounding gentlemen invest material with much emotion and care. Their versatility is not on full display here; those who know their work know they can take on contemporary material with passion, too. There is no showboating or distracting, distancing decoration. Al Ramirez is heard on guitar to fine effect for some instrumental variety and, likewise, Effie Passaro adds the presence of a female voice to "Be Still." A female presence is, surprisingly, also in the air when the singer takes on the mindset of the Virgin Mary at the time of the impending holy birth with "Breath of Heaven," in the reworked version called "Mary's Song." (This was a revised lyric that singer Amy Grant set to Chris Eaton's original heavenly piece.) It's so committed a rendition that I'm not bothered by his choice of sticking with the later-dominant Grant variant, rather than opting for the original or the tweaked words her singer husband Vince Gill recorded; it's only the false rhymes that bug me a bit.
A Christmas Gift with gifted artists Branden & James is, of course, a Christmas gift suggestion for anyone on your list who appreciates an option for holiday music favoring religion over reindeer, glory over glitz.