A new album by Liz Callaway is always a cause for celebration, and much more so if it is a Christmas album, her first one (though she released an EP a couple of years) This is also a duets album, with Peter Caro on guitar, and I can’t think of a voice more suited with a guitar than Liz’s.
And the songs are marvel, and in these solitary complicated times we are living in, much appreciated. You can hear the ache and tenderness in the season in all these tracks – a very hopeful ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ is much too welcome. When she sings ‘We’re apart, that’s true,’ from ‘Merry Christmas Darling, for example,’ the pain is almost unbearable.
And I think she has found herself a new signature tune (much like she kind of owns ‘Meadwlark’ now) with Dolly Parton’s ‘Hard Candy Christmas.’ I have seen her sing this version everywhere, and I haven;t gotten tired of it, and doubt if I will. The whole album is contemplative and perfect for your Christmas quarantine.
A Christmas Album is for me a good test drive for a singer. I know I have heard some of Jessie J’s music before, but sadly for me, nothing ever stuck. And listening to her voice, I am actually impressed by its great texture – there’s a huskiness there that is quite appealing and not too vocal fry-ish. And in this album, ‘This Christmas Day,’ she has some powerful production: Babyface, Darkchild, and David Foster, just to name three. There is a white soul R & B feel to the sound, and it’s great. And the songs sound perfect, creating a mood.
Maybe that’s my problem with it – it feels more a mood than a cohesive production. For sure, tracks will fare better taken as pieces instead of part of a whole thing. I didn’t connect with the songs, even if I enjoyed listening to the tracks at the moment. Am I weird? Am I too old? At this point, the best thing I can say about the album is that it is my two-degree connection to Channing Tatum, who reportedly is her boyfriend at the moment. (Shrug)
It’s always nice to see Broadway takes on Christmas albums, and I particularly welcome a Norman Lewis one, so I was happy to listen to ‘The Norman Lewis Christmas Album.’ At the very least, we will know it will be well-sung, with Lewis’ powerhouse vocals. And Lewis gives us a packed repertoire, with eighteen tracks. And some great tracks here: a swinging and funky ‘Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer,’ to ‘Mary Did You Know,’ to a soulful ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.’ I mean, there’s plenty of soul here for everyone’s stockings. But I wish it had more Broadway inflections. He does include show tunes like ‘Where Is Love,’ from Oliver, and ‘Bring Him Home’ from Les Miserables. I don’t know why, though, but they sound like fillers and feel kind of out of place here. Still, good playlist shuffling would give a lot of satisfaction from this album, and his fans, me included, would be delighted to spin this.
I’ve had Gwen Stafni’s ‘You Make It feel Like Christmas’ a while now, but I just played it. I wasn’t to listen to it for some reason. Maybe it’s the Blake Shelton connection – he duets here and is dating her in real life, and by the way, he is also a famous homophobe. I was sure I would not like this album, I told myself. Unfairly, I was already judging it as a bland pop Christmas album. But surprises of all surprises, it is pretty darn good. It sounds more like a Gwen Stefani album more than a pop one. and that is definitely a good thing.
Look at ‘Jingle Bells,’ is it just me or does it have elements of SKA, making the song entirely sound different. And she has a very sexy and different take on ‘Santa Baby,’ where she ditches the coo-coo arrangement and goes for a striptease. Hey, works just as well and is hella sexy. I wish I was more enthusiastic about her original songs – I thought they were serviceable at best. But all in all, this is an album one can listen to and get something from it, instead of just a background music Holiday album.
When October goes, can Christmas be far behind? Well, at least Holiday music is here, and here I am listening to my first one for 2017. I have always been a lover of Holiday music, but old age has made me perhaps a bit cynical about it. But still, I still get a thrill when it is fresh and new, and Leslie Odom Jr’s new album ‘Simply Christmas’ made my heart skip a bit.
This is a smooth jazz album and is probably best when played to with a few cocktails, because Odom Jr’s soulful renditions inspire more contemplation. I like the melancholy ‘Merry Christmas Darling,’ and he can even make ‘The Christmas Song’ sound fresh (or close to it) and his ‘Ave Maria’ is right on mark. The album can at times be too mellow – I listened to it straight through once and fell asleep. But with your coffee and whiskey, this album is good company.
Thanksgiving is the official beginning of the Holiday season, so what better way to start by seeing a Christmas movie? I was not expecting much going into ‘Almost Christmas’ because I can’t remember seeing a good Holiday in some time now, but every year they keep on making them, and it seems that this one is the “urban” version of that tradition. At best, I thought this would be entertaining, but empty. But minutes into the movie, I found myself weeping. I guess that’s what Christmas means to me now – a day that starts with sadness. You would think that as each year passes by it gets better, but the sadness just deepens. But then you appreciate more and more that the little things matter most at this time of year.
The Meyers family is celebrating their first Holidays since the death of their matriarch figure earlier in the year, but besides that it seems to be business as usual for them. The siblings are still fighting, even though they are adults. There are secrets abound – substance abuse, financial problems, brinks of divorce. David Talbert, who wrote and directed this film, mines very familiar territory, some even carelessly. (I mean, one of the child is running for congress, and still campaigning around Christmastime?) But you will forget all the flaws because of the two performance that anchor the movie: Danny Glover’s Walter, the sensitive patriarchal figure, and Mo’Nique, who plays the sassy auntt. We see the two of them rib off each other early in the film, and the fun continues all through out. Mo’Nique is perfection, and so natural that this is probably very close to her real persona. It’s the kind of film where you start laughing, then the sad parts come in and you cry, and then with still tears in your eyes, you are laughing again. This is no rocket science, just honest outpouring of human emotions. During Christmas, that’s what you need the most.
Blake’s “A Classic Christmas,” if for anything, has a great reason for existing: the album has a great opening track: “The Christmas Song,” which they sang with Dame Shirley Bassey. Supposedly, Dame Bassey has never had a Christmas Day top single, and this gives her the chance this year (Sadly, she probably will lose to Justin Bieber) It’s a soaring track, the kind you thought they don’t do anymore. She is featured prominently, as if Blake is just playing the role of her back-up singers. I love it, a real diva star turn, and it makes hearing such an ubiquitous song seem special.
The rest of the album, though, is run-of-the-mill. As a trio, the harmonies are a little too loose for my taste, and the looseness didn’t lend to imaginative blending. But it’s Christmas, and it will serve the purpose, so I am not really complaining. Plus, the one original song, “Back In Your Arms (For Christmas)” is very nice, though I cannot wait for it to be covered by anther singer. Maybe Dame Shirley Bassey. I mean, why not? It’s all about Shirley, surely!
You want a Holiday album that’s sparse, less busy, not as demanding? Look no further than Ashley Davis and John Doyle’s “The Christmas Sessions.” Davis and Doyle are big names in Celtic music, (I initially thought he was the Broadway director with the same name) and here they do what they do best. Davis has a clear, no-frills voice, and she delivers the songs in the same manner. Doyle duets on guitar and mandola, and the pairing is terrific. This is the album you listen to after everyone has gone to sleep and you want to take a break before going back to cooking that holiday dinner or wrapping more gifts. Classics such as “I’ll Be Hoem For Christmas,” and “White Christmas” are presented as almost a blank state, and you can feel the melancholy messages without the overkill. You can even interpret them in a sly hopeful vein. It is music that’s unfussy, and the message is delivered straight away. I like it a lot, especially the sparse arrangements that focus on the duet of voice and (one) instrument. Christmas should be as simple.
It is easy to dismiss Jann Arden’s Christmas album as boring and derivative, because in some sense it is. I was ready to write that review after listening to it once. But as I putzed on the computer, I kept it on repeat, and I found out to be rich and subtle – it’s one of those albums that grow on you, and very rarely does that happen for me on a Christmas/Holiday album.
I think it’s because Arden has a very subtle way of expressing herself through the songs, and she is like that singer you pass by, but if you stopped and listen more, you would find that she puts a big part of herself in these songs, and you appreciate her interpretations more. I remember typing, and then stopping and listening to her version of “The Christmas Song,” a song we have all heard more than a million times over. I realize all of a sudden how heartfelt her interpretation, and she has a way of giving meaning to the words of the song that’s very intelligent, and reminded me of how a classic Singer (like Frank or Ella) would interpret a standard. Her organic rock arrangement of “Happy Xmas” is fine, too, and is perfect for the earthiness of the song. Even the wildly swinging “Jingle Bells” grew on me. No wonder this is good, as this record was co-produced with Bob Rock, who also produced Michael Buble’s gazillion-selling Christmas album, so there’s a precedent there. So, don’t pass this album by – listen and be transported.
Here we go again, and I am now writing about my first Christmas album this year, and it’s LeAmm Rimes’ Today Is Christmas.’ It would take a Christmas miracle for me to have a happy Christmas again this year. I know I sound cynical, but it would take a lot for me to get that Holiday spirit again – or ever. Plus, none of the new Christmas albums this year have excited me, and I didn’t think Leann Rimes’ holiday album would do it. Well, I was right. Rimes’ album is okay. I actually think it is slightly better than okay – she has good musicianship and she definitely has a good voice. And she sings with a little more intelligence than a lot of her contemporaries. And her two original songs here – the title track and ‘I Still Believe In Santa Claus’ are actually quite good songs – with strong recalls and stellar arrangements. The rest is you usual fare – your usual God Rest ye Merry Gentlemens and Little Drummer Boys and Frosty the Snowmans – but I’ll be darned because “The Heartache Can Wait” almost moved me. Maybe closer to the date I will listen to this again and it might move me more, but right now, I am still heartbroken to care.