26 December 2014

Marilyn Monroe Premiere Collection

More Marilyn Delights!
By Kristin Battestella

Thanks to my lucking out on finding the Marilyn Monroe Premiere Collection box set on sale at Target, I am back into all things Marilyn, including several previously unreviewed gems and early Monroe appearances.

All About Eve – Monroe of course has a small role in this much-lauded 1950 classic headlined by Bette Davis (Jezebel), Anne Baxter (The Ten Commandments), Supporting Actor winner George Sanders (Rebecca), Celeste Holm (Gentleman’s Agreement), and Thelma Ritter (Pillow Talk). Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (A Letter to Three Wives) accents the tongue in cheek winks and play within a play look at the stage versus Hollywood, its stars, scandals, and the interconnected, Dickensian favor or demise with fun name drops, freeze frame narrations, and Shakespearean asides. Contemporary audiences may not like all the telling, yelling, multiple narrators, or flashback frames, but the stories, characters, archetypes, and interplay unfold spectacularly – and the furs, fashions, cigarettes, score, and theatre dressings look so sweet. The filming here looks like a stage presentation yet its story telling constructs heighten the drama and feel quite modern. The then cutthroat ambition, catty attitudes, latent symbolism, us versus them curtain divides, and aging starlets really haven’t changed all that much have they? Ageism, sexism – there will always be a younger actress waiting in the wings. Where does the stage stop and reality begin and who do you trust or stab in the back to go on with the show? For her part as a would be aspiring actress, Monroe only has a few scenes forty-five minutes in, but she holds her own with the heavyweights thanks to a great script, witty lines, and fine delivery from the entire company. This is the Black Swan of its day, so why aren’t there more pictures like this now?

As Young As You Feel – Thelma Ritter joins Monty Woolley (The Bishop’s Wife) and David Wayne (Adam’s Rib) for this 1951 switch-a-roo comedy, a neat 77 minute time capsule of social and financial issues then and now. Forced retirement, struggling whilst on social security, men working to support a wife before marriage, a woman expected to leave a job upon marrying – people back then waited and worked one job their entire lives yet still found difficulty because someone else said otherwise regardless of age, money, or romance. The plot is a little slow to get rolling thanks to exposition or to and fro transition scenes, but the older ensemble provides the comedic music, dancing, and tomfoolery amid the straightforward conversation and mature relationships. Marilyn, of course, is a secretary to die for complete with a great white dress that pops onscreen. Despite the sexy, she’s actually a capable assistant and keeps up with these cantankerous older men! Acting old is what makes you old, indeed – there are some serious and cranky truths here. Once the bemusing games are afoot, however, this remains an entertaining little piece of fun and study.

O. Henry’s Full House – The John Steinbeck narrating frame for this 1952 anthology showcasing the eponymous author’s works is a treat in itself – add Charles Laughton (The Private Life of Henry the VIII) as a charming bum with refined tastes alongside David Wayne for the first tale “The Cop and the Anthem” and the touching scene with Monroe sets off the irony and spiritual accents. Madcap crook Richard Widmark (Don’t Bother to Knock) then steals the morality in “The Clarion Call,” an interesting little look at both sides of the law and how men can’t quite escape their criminal pasts. Story tres “The Last Leaf” is a snowy period piece featuring an ill Anne Baxter. The illicit suggestion and bleak countdown perfectly capture the bittersweet of art and life cut short before really having started – but at under 2 hours, this anthology packs a lot into its vignettes. Each story is a separate, well paced, quality drama thanks to the often ironic literary source. Next, Howard Hawks (Red River) directs the humorous backwoods kidnapping in “The Ransom of Red Chief.” The backfiring getaway vehicle and blasé, whatever parents may seem out of place amid the character dramas, but the lighthearted Fred Allen radio star sass goes a long way before the Victorian holiday finale “The Gift of the Magi,” starring Jeanne Crain (State Fair) and Farley Granger (Strangers on a Train). The sad newlywed faces gaping in store windows as others buy exorbitant gifts while they scrimp on food and count hidden pennies is still quite relevant. They give of themselves and sell their most treasured things, but are they really worth it? Not only will fans of the author delight, but the commentary, literary extras, and restoration notes make for a quite pleasing finish here.  

We’re Not Married – Fred Allen and David Wayne are here again beside Ginger Rogers (Top Hat), Mitzi Gaynor (There’s No Business Like Show Business), Zsa Zsa Gabor (Moulin Rouge), and more for this 1952 humorous romance. Miss Mississippi Monroe is a young beauty queen more interested in pageant success then her bitter househusband or baby, and it is intriguing to see this mid century time capsule of marital mood and relationship mores – they are certainly different from today’s casual couplings! Some transition scenes are slow as we bounce from one couple’s story to the next – our players never crisscross but rather serve as separate not so wedded bliss vignettes. This halting approach must restart with each segment, making the comedy and drama uneven as these unhappy duos react to their marriage dilemma with varying degrees of heavy or comical. The tone would have been more balanced and witty if our couples had interacted and thus perhaps reacted differently to their situation. Illegitimacy, military legalities, and the serious latter half make the time here a bit overlong at 85 minutes. Some pairs are more likeable than others are, and the script isn’t as funny as it thinks it is. Fortunately, the then scandalous unwed notions, bumbling judges, licensing technicalities, and holiday accents make for some lightheartedness and social interest along with pleasant fashions, fifties décor, and behind the scenes radio show drama. And dang, young Zsa Zsa, wow!

A Split Decision!

Let’s Make It Legal – I’m not a fan of Claudette Colbert (It Happened One Night), but she and Robert Wagner (Hart to Hart) look so young in this 1951 comedy! The separate beds and set dressings feel somewhat mid century standard, but Colbert shockingly shows off her legs and signs those divorce papers. She’s a little too feisty to be a grandmother and the way these men – who are actually younger than she is – fight for her affection feels awkward. The misogynistic dialogue is also too of the time casual, with men discussing the legalities of beating a woman while gambling on horses instead of paying their alimony. This script is perhaps meant to be witty as the battle of the sexes complaints go round and round, but the dry, back and forth meddling gets tiresome fast. Fortunately, young model Monroe adds a much needed spark with a great bathing suit, fun delivery, and a brief, but juicy zing. At 77 minutes, the attractions and rivals feel under cooked and on the nose – the score is largely silent and this kind of romantic charmer has been developed better with a more likeable cast elsewhere. Fans of the stars and fifties comedies, however, may yet enjoy the fun along with Wagner’s commentary and the bemusing period newsreel featurettes.

About the Premiere Collection set

Certainly it’s understandable that not every Marilyn Monroe film has been included here – namely less quality fair such as Hometown Story or Clash by Night or even well done, but minimal Marilyn fair such as The Asphalt Jungle. However, it is very surprising that River of No Return and The Prince and the Showgirl are absent from the Premiere Collection. Granted there may be an MGM or Warner, non-Fox Studios technicality in place, but other non-Fox films are included and it is ironic that films where Monroe has one or two scenes are here over such starring roles. Fortunately, the features on the individual discs are retained – subtitles, commentaries, trailers, photo galleries, newsreels, restoration comparisons, and more. The streamlined box also has a pleasant design with three separate volumes folding out to create fun Marilyn centerfolds. I was apprehensive in purchasing the Premiere Collection online after hearing this somewhat cardboard packaging caused damaged discs, but the $30 I lucked upon at Target was cheaper than Amazon and there have been no set problems. Despite any perceived selection or box set flaws, Monroe completists will delight in this convenient edition, and my Marilyn collecting sister probably knows what her next gift is going to be! 


23 December 2014

Sandi Patty The Gift Goes On

Sandi Patty’s The Gift Goes On a Rousing Good Time
By Kristin Battestella

1983’s The Gift Goes On was the first of nearly a dozen holiday albums and compilations from the contemporary Christian singer then known as Sandi Patti, and it’s a reverent, rousing session for the season, indeed.

Worship the King opens The Gift Goes On in sweeping fashion yet carries an easy eighties beat, pleasant melody, inspiring choir, catchy rhythms, and spiritual lyrics that sound both carol-esque and viable for year round praise. The big notes continue for the Worship the Gift Medley of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear/Away in a Manger/What Child is This and Little Town of Bethlehem but the mix stays soft and lullaby tender thanks to breezy and effortless transitions across the carols as the somber orchestration builds. Patty has certainly given these tunes full-length treatments elsewhere – many which appear on the Yuletide Joy compilation – but there’s enough of each familiar refrain in this warm and graceful sing a long session.

The titular The Gift Goes On is arranged in a fun calypso style with a slightly dated eighties panache, but there’s also a swanky maturity to balance the youthful backing choir. For such an operatically capable singer, Patty also knows when to keep her vocals and music casual in an intimate, gentle mode – as in the short Christmas Was Meant for Children track. This quiet, nostalgic two and a half minutes of reflection adds a personal family time to The Gift Goes On before the Old World flavoring of Jesu Bambino/O Holy Night. A touch of O Come All Ye Faithful refrains accent these less heard and triumphantly delivered carols. Although not as big a showstopper as found on her O Holy Night release, the rousing choir and varied arrangement lead to some excellent crescendos, and Sandi takes the house down as only few people can.

The Worship the King Reprise Medley of Celebrate the Gift: Rejoice/ For Unto Us A Child is Born is a bit of a mouthful of a track listing I know, but this combination takes the catchy of the first tune and adds a little Handel’s Messiah – just in case we weren’t already trying to sing along like we are all so spectacular. Underlining choruses from Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Joy to the World choir refrains add layers of concert and performance to The Gift Goes On. One couldn’t possibly do all this calypso to classical all in one night so here’s the quick show version in snappy, holding that high note glory. I Wonder as I Wander, by contrast, adds a somber melody and slows down the lingering breaths with seemingly medieval accents before O Magnify the Lord provides more reverence. The shortest track on The Gift Goes On, these 2 minutes seem more palpable pop in fashion compared to the older carols and classical sources. However, it may also be too similar to Worship the King, almost to the point that it sounds like the next verse. Fortunately, this is still another catchy, hand clapping gospel session that can play on regardless of season.

The set’s two longest tracks conclude The Gift Goes On, and due to some low volume, old CD mono, or poor mixing, it’s tough to understand Bethlehem Morning at first. Thankfully, the soft notes and high octaves come together with big lyrics rising and lifting up the first Christmas story in parallel to His delivered fulfillment. At five minutes, this one may seem redundant because we already had some exceptional, stirring numbers on The Gift Goes On, but this remains touching and heart tugging even if some listeners may find the notes too bombastic. Also five minutes, the bittersweet Merry Christmas with Love/Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas finale is perhaps an odd choice to finish The Gift Goes On with an expected December melancholy pop. The album is after all an unabashedly Christian and uplifting half hour otherwise. However, this is a pleasant, hushed end and a fittingly warm fare thee well.
The Gift Goes On is certainly not for solely secular Christmas celebrants or general seasonal audiences considering its mix of short and unfamiliar religious steep or long and long-winded carols. (I also realize not everyone was as addicted to Patty’s 1983 More Than Wonderful record – yes record – as I was.) It’s unusual as well that with such a capable voice, many big difficult carols are absent from this surprisingly short 35 minute session. Nonetheless, this is a fine holiday debut from Sandi – and we’ve had plenty more Christmas music from her since to complete this spiritual family friendly playlist perfect for a night of baking or tree trimming.

18 December 2014

Barbra Streisand Christmas Memories

Barbra Streisand’s Christmas Memories a Sophisticated, Somber Listen
By Kristin Battestella

Where Christmas today is mostly kid-centric, Barbra Streisand’s platinum 2001Christmas Memories release proves that not only is there nothing wrong with a mature, somber holiday album, but that such pensive sophistication may be exactly what December needs.

The expected long-winded notes are no less soft, tender, and gentle to start I’ll Be Home for Christmas and smooth background orchestration helps bend the melody, letting the vocals linger while retaining the familiar bittersweet. Christmas Memories’ swanky but melancholy tone continues with the combined Broadway style and dinner for two sway of A Christmas Love Song. Although it is tough to understand the lyrics at times or find the romantic December wording, there’s so pleasing a dance here that it doesn’t even matter. This excellent elegance rolls on with What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve. Considering all the sweet singers who’ve recorded it, I’ve never realized how much this song seems meant for Barbra. It’s jazzy, velvet, mature yet a hopeful inquiry. There’s no need for big arrangements – just intimate music and a stunning plea. How can one refuse? 

I Remember continues the downhearted merriment on Christmas Memories with a quiet nostalgia and storytelling verse. Maybe it’s generic in its Yule recollections or a bit rambling, granted. However, something here will tug your heartstrings whilst listening alone in the wee hours before the tree. This is a bit of a sad song indeed made more so considering its post 9/11 release. Fortunately, Snowbound is more romantic and traditionally fireside. I would say kinky, but this tune is too mature for that, so classy the juicy need not be said. The more familiar It Must Have Been the Mistletoe is perhaps as pop as Christmas Memories gets – there is a bit more orchestration and a breezy, effortless delivery creating plenty of winter love and Christmas charm.

Though it may seem as if Christmas Lullaby is meant to affectionately put the kids to bed come Christmas Eve, the poignant lyrics of hope, joy, and peace resonate with deeper feelings amid the tear jerking Broadway moments. Naturally, the titular Christmas Mem’ries encapsulates the wistful, evocative mood of the session perfectly with its somber, swaying delivery. The childhood talk of baking cookies and waking Christmas morning gives an aged, holiday patina, allowing the season to be vintage like a fine wine rather than remaining perpetually juvenile. Christmas Memories might sound like a lot of the same at times, but the pleasant delivery and sentimental lyrics keep the 45 minutes plus moving over your candlelit dinner. Grown Up Christmas List continues the tender – it’s tear inducing at best and downright upsetting at worst. Considering the album’s late 2001 date, these heartwarming notes, crescendos, and lyrical peace and harmony for which an adult would ask Santa take on a more profound meaning.

A shorter version of Ave Maria appeared on Barbra’s 1967 A Christmas Album, but Christmas Memories provides almost five minutes of down and good medieval Latin and reverence. This is perhaps the most Catholic infused and Christ centric of a Christmas ode one can get, yet the uplifting, ascending voices here transcend language with a solemn, therapeutic universal indeed. Closer continues the melancholy with a perfectly understandable, tearful rendition. In a season where many are separated or depressed, why are so many Christmas albums so dang jolly? It’s an ironically pleasing change to have a lonely December vocal. The poignant, show-stopping finale One God has choir accents to match its sweeping, united message – which again takes on more meaning in the wake of its release. Instead of homogenizing the holiday quarter into one moneymaking mishmash without belief, why not just accept our common spring to the season?

Understandably, some listeners may find Christmas Memories too depressing or over the top in it’s hugging, holding hands, Kumbaya feeling. This session captures the bleakness of a Christmas after September 11th and may be dated in that regard. But why not have an album not meant for a youthful, festive, kitschy and ridiculously happy audience? Where Barbra’s A Christmas Album was traditionally split between religious and secular sides, the new or less familiar material on Christmas Memories fills the void for solitary singles or older couples who may perennially experience the sadness of the season – and that’s actually pretty darn nice.  

13 December 2014

In the Christmas Mood I and II

In the Christmas Mood Volumes a Happening Time, Indeed!
By Kristin Battestella

The Glenn Miller Orchestra carries on the brassy mood of its namesake (“He’s not dead, he’s missing!”) and turns the swinging merriment into holiday spirit with not one, but two nineties volumes of In the Christmas Mood. Though uneven at times thanks to modern missteps and mid century interpretations, these two albums remain jolly fun for a December dance party. 

In the Christmas Mood begins the festive session with a spirited Sleigh Ride, still in the Pops feel yet offering a new breezy spin amid the recognizable rhythms. This is not a set of all secular grooves, however, and soothing time is taken for the spiritual with the Yuletide Medley of O Holy Night/Joy to the World/Little Town of Bethlehem and Deck the Halls. Delightful horns linger deep on the reverence with mellow, lullaby notes, swaying nicely for an evening dinner before going peppy on the joy and concluding with the ritzy trimmings. With such positive orchestral opportunity, it’s surprising to hear vocalists enter In the Christmas Mood for Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. We know the tune well enough to sing along without a chorus, and these merely serviceable sound-a-likes dampen the Christmas charm with a generic, amateur, no name feeling – ironic, of course, considering the Glenn Miller branding. The instrumental designs on In the Christmas Mood are far more appealing, but the band is unfortunately toned down in favor of these weaker singers.

These interrupting singers hamper the sweet, snowy sounds on Silver Bells as well before the jiving Jingle Bells puts In the Christmas Mood back on track. Granted, some listeners may not like these faux Miller arrangements jamming off the melody – at times they are unrecognizable as themselves and have too many Pennsylvania 6500 familiarities. If you’re having a full tilt holiday party, however, this seasonal merriment with classic flavoring is okay. Frosty the Snowman continues the upbeat, dancing good time but before the rock outs stray too much, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas slows In the Christmas Mood down with solo, sentimental bittersweet – and it’s made all the more bittersweet thanks to those grating vocals!

I wish In the Christmas Mood had separated the instrumental and vocal tracks or had done the carols in full without singers, for another Yuletide Medley of O Christmas Tree/It Came Upon a Midnight Clear/We Three Kings and What Child is This is perfectly upbeat as needed or somber, sweet, and reverent in its brassy blend of carols and tradition. The twists here go peppy when we might expect melancholy and simmering when we normally hear festive. These melodies feel like a concert, a special holiday evening on the town sprinkling in a few notes of everything – unlike the forgettable gal ruining I'll Be Home for Christmas. The amateur vocals erroneously turn this lonely tale into a speedy toe tapper, and again, the big instruments away from the singers carry the swanky sway much better. A beautifully simple and slow Silent Night would bid the night adieu in tender fashion, but unfortunately, the unnecessary In the Christmas Mood is a much too on the nose finale. Let’s sing about us singing about the holidays, yeah! No. This faux forties choir deters the titular tone, and the inability to skip over the vocals victimizes half the fine music here, giving In the Christmas Mood an inaccurate ho hum feeling.

Fortunately, In the Christmas Mood II starts on the right track with a fine We Wish You A Merry Christmas. There are slow salutations and suave but no less danceable rhythms continuing that sophisticated merrymaking mood. Likewise, White Christmas remains slow, brooding, and cheek-to-cheek with its sentimental chic. The big brass notes really make the arrangement pop here – before those flat singers again compromise another classic. The Yuletide Medley of Away in the Manger/Ave Maria and The First Noel does far better with the lullaby reverence, creating striking, almost weeping instrumental notes for each classy carol. Often annoying due to its repetition, The Twelve Days of Christmas delivers the familiar refrains before jazzing up the traditional and giving each measure of the countdown a distinctive good time. Winter Wonderland would stroll along with more breezy beats but for those pedestrian vocals yet again sacrificing the pleasant music.

The fireside grooves continue with The Christmas Song, keeping In the Christmas Mood II in smooth sentimental fashion along with the surprisingly perky but no less respectful or sing alongable Yuletide Medley of Hark the Herald Angels Sing/Angels We Have Heard on High/God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and O Come All Ye Faithful. Of course, (There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays would continue the perfect peppy and toe tapping rhythms if it weren’t for the inferior singers. This eighties meets forties off key style just doesn’t work. Not only is it not very good in itself, but we already have the real perennial mid century classics remaining timeless and fresh in our collective Christmas mind.

Thankfully, Good King Wenceslas does much better for In the Christmas Mood II by adding new swinging notes to this Stephen ode. Santa Claus is Coming to Town remains spry and playful but its upbeat is pleasantly adult instead of juvenile. It does stray too close to In the Mood at times in its jamming interlude and that’s okay, as is the upscale, swanky winking suggestion of Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Serve up the cocktails and toast In the Christmas Mood II before the fitting Auld Lang Syne exit. In the Christmas Mood II smartly reduces the appearance of its stock singers for most of its tracks, and these departing big brass tempos vary the rhythms, making room for time to kiss under the mistletoe or jive the December away. 

There are no true standout tracks on this In the Christmas Mood double session, and the zing of the original bandleader is obviously absent. When up against classic Christmas albums and vintage holiday renditions from the period itself, the try hard, revival swing design here sadly dates itself as inferior – especially those unspectacular singers! The instrumental sounds, however, successfully pull off the mid century nostalgia well. At 45 minutes each, there’s enough pleasantly swinging material here to accompany a festive dance party of any age and scale. The sophistication of either In the Christmas Mood is secular enough to jazz up the office yet recognizably spiritual and spirited notes are in the mix. While some traditional audiences may not like such a big band intrusion or additional rhythms upon the carols, overall, this is a sentimental, toe tapping good time for your playlist.

11 December 2014

Christmas Wish Olivia Newton-John

Olivia Newton-John’s Christmas Wish a Saccharine Mixed Bag at Best
By Kristin Battestella

Australian songstress Olivia Newton-John’s 2007 Christmas Wish is a solid hour of familiar seasonal instrumentals and new uplifting merriment. Unfortunately, the safe, syrupy sentiment comes on too thick and hampers what should be a peaceful, inspiring listen.

Rather than an over the top bombastic, Christmas Wish opens with soft notes, expected mellow and breathless reverence for a fine O Come All Ye Faithful full of pleasing humility. We’re knocking on the door, whispering Adeste Fideles, and requesting an audience with the Babe. Angels We Have Heard on High follows, the first of ten so-called interludes between tracks. These instrumental, minute plus transitions are a neat way to keep subtle carol melodies both familiar and rare within the set, and of course, their short treatment makes room for new secular fair such as the Every Time It Snows duet with Jon Secada. His Spanish interweavings add a delightful accent for the rest of the year, but despite holiday lyrics and winter mentions, this romantic ballad doesn’t really have much of a December feeling.

A lovely violin Away in the Manger interlude leads to the somber We Three Kings, complete with room to hold notes for some medieval, mystical oomph before the carols continue thanks to a charming The First Noel snippet. A Mother’s Christmas Wish next adds more seasonal love and spirit by combining familial feelings with a peaceful lesson. As the eponymous track, this might have been meant as Christmas Wish’s big hit ode. However, this tune is instead indicative of the album’s main problem: an overload of similar sentimentality. The less heard Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring interlude is prettier than the seemingly try hard, very special songs, but Angels in the Snow repeats more of the tender, touching, universal but generic holiday magic of A Mother’s Christmas Wish. Maybe it takes having kids at Christmas to appreciate these two near identical tracks, but they are simply too much of the same too close together. A listener could step away, miss the interlude, and think the same song was still playing.

A slightly longer guitar What Child is This interlude segues to a wispy Silent Night lullaby with foreign verses from Jann Arden, but the lengthy, full treatment carols also ultimately remain as uninspired as the redundant secular standards on Christmas Wish. The brooding piano moment of O Come, O Come Emmanuel leads to distinctive guest star Michael McDonald and All Through the Night, which is also somehow derivative of the same general holiday malaise of Christmas Wish. For such a super sized Christmas session, this all sounds like one long sleepy set, and ironically, it doesn’t feel like Olivia really sings that much here. Likewise, the instrumental Little Drummer Boy interlude doesn’t standout, either – probably because it is lacking in, you know, the drums.

Fortunately, Underneath the Same Sky wakes Christmas Wish up from the doze fest with some of Olivia’s overdue country upbeat. The Down Under, nostalgic lyrics are fun, the titular sentiment is nice – really it is true whatever you’re celebrating this December. Of course, the only knock here is that this is a sweet tooth on top of an album already serving up too many other saccharine Disney ditties. The interludes change up as well, trading brief carols for old-fashioned traditional flair – although the O Christmas Tree segment is a near unrecognizable tannenbaum. Little Star of Bethlehem also becomes too insipid, running together to the point where you can’t hear its peaceful message. Deck the Halls is the shortest interlude on Christmas Wish, and by this point, these instrumental arrangements become somewhat frustrating, even deceiving because the audience looks at the track listings and expects a complete Christmas session but instead receives a contemporary album that is going for a bare minimum Christian theme and just happens to have a few holiday songs.

This laying it on banal tone overflowing on Christmas Wish is surprising considering Olivia’s other spiritual releases, and Instrument of Peace previously appeared on her Grace and Gratitude Christian album. This should be a powerful, personal, testimonial thanks to some kicked up orchestration not found elsewhere on Christmas Wish, but it’s still too darn slow and jars up against an oddly placed We Wish You a Merry Christmas, which sends the album off with a piano exit two songs early. Mercifully, Christmas on My Radio is one great little number steeped in a fifties via Grease style and reflection. Surely, it is understandable if Olivia is reluctant to revisit what is probably an expected design. However, this is the only time on Christmas Wish that she truly breaks out, kicks it up, and does something fun and – gasp!–different. The lyrics recall and old time Christmas with feel good dancing sway, her voice is great, and I would have loved to hear a shorter album in this style. This is the only song trying not to be the unnecessary global peace and love hit, yet it is the only one perking you up and giving Christmas Wish notice. Barry Manilow joins Olivia and starts A Gift of Love in what could be something special, too, but at two and a half minutes, this encore ends Christmas Wish just when it was getting good.

There’s a lot of new seasonal material on Christmas Wish – this second holiday release from Newton-John is probably trying to stand out from the perhaps bigger carols on her 2000 Tis the Season album with Vince Gill. The guest stars and unique listing here should make Christmas Wish feel like a concert, but the visiting vocalists are hardly there and the orchestration barely flinches for the entire hour. Unlike the all secular and iffy celeb laden kitschy of her later This Christmas set with John Travolta, there’s nothing extreme or all that spectacular about Christmas Wish. It’s a tolerable, pleasant listen for December office background music, but it should be better than it is. With so many similar notes, it’s easy to zone out or find most of the tunes forgettable. I want to like Christmas Wish and am probably being generous in calling it a mixed bag – there will certainly be too much syrupy here for most audiences. Longtime Olivia fans or country and contemporary Christian households, however, can take small doses of the mellow merriment on Christmas Wish for a tame, seasonal playlist.  

06 December 2014

The Temptations Give Love at Christmas

The Temptations’ Give Love at Christmas Sets the Mellow Mood
By Kristin Battestella

The longstanding Motown quintet The Temptations adds a different kind of soul to the season with their 1980 album Give Love at Christmas. While there are a few hiccups, this remains a sophisticated listen for old school fans or adults seeking a certain candlelight and Christmas mood.

Give Love on Christmas Day is a tad dated and somewhat generic to start Give Love at Christmas – it just doesn’t really sound like a December ode. Fortunately, it is a well belted standard in proper Temptations fashion, and there is a nice sentiment about what people really ought to do by giving of themselves instead of wasting the holiday on something more fleeting like shopping. Repeating from their 1970 The Temptations’ Christmas Card, The Christmas Song is updated here with a new swanky and indeed tempting spin on the traditional Torme staple. Fun, down deep bass ad-libs mix with the seasonal lyrics, combing the R&B and the easy holiday listening perfectly. This is, however, an oddly placed somber stuck between Give Love on Christmas Day and Love Comes at Christmas, which with its seasonal generosity in full swing, feels like a sequel to the first track. Are these two so similar merriment tunes a bit too interchangeable? Perhaps, but we can forgive The Temptations because they both sound so sweet. 

A previous version of The Little Drummer Boy appears on The Temptations Christmas Card as well, but this redo for Give Love at Christmas has some sort of funk beat and disco groove littering the composition. I would have loved to hear just the melodic harmonizing and vocal magic only The Temptations can provide, but unfortunately, I’m not really sure what they were trying to do with this rendition. Since this is a carol we don’t hear that often, this unusual attempt probably gets a pass. However, this was definitely a missed opportunity for some of the few singers who could have really done something special with this innocent tale – instead of, you know, bell bottoming it up. Thankfully, This Christmas remains the standout here with a focused, suave delivery brimming of seasonal merriment and holiday romance amid the titular refrains. Give Love at Christmas is actually a very mature session, seemingly groovy for the kid’s ears but unabashedly sublime in its adult sounds of the season. Again, a pleasingly smooth sentiment to hear in a year-end quarter increasingly focused on the money making juvenile aspects of Christmas. 

Likewise, Everything for Christmas slows down Give Love at Christmas with sexy talk of caviar, cherries, and champagne. Yes, it is a little more of the same with three romantic December tunes taking up precious time where only one was needed in a short, 34 minute album. Luckily, The Temptations know not to fix what isn’t broken, and they are so great at this seasonal dinner for two soundtrack. Christmas Everyday is another track strangely placed between the cocktails and the soft finale. This bemusing bass and mini rock out might have been better served by pairing the two faster songs together and thus leaving the overall slow, smooth sentiments uninterrupted. The Silent Night finale – again a do over from Christmas Card – has a little bit of everything from a hint of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and verses of peace and well wishes to a lush, traditional lead, sweet bass, and perfect harmonies. Obviously, Give Love at Christmas is a secularly designed album, but it’s nice to hear Jesus mentioned once or twice on a Christmas album. Some bigger holiday staples can be found on The Temptations Christmas Card, but I don’t know why they would chose to redo songs already there before giving us more full on glorious carols Temptations style.

Give Love at Christmas doesn’t have the line up from The Temptations’ 1964-71 heights, which may automatically put off some listeners who think this is an in name only, washed up release, and this late seventies infusion may also be too dated for younger audiences compared to such a timeless heyday. However, original member still going strong Otis Williams, late bass Melvin Franklin, tenor Glenn Leonard, baritone Richard Street, and the returned Dennis Edwards are all here. Of course, it took some digging to find out exactly which Temptations are part of Give Love at Christmas – the fine print on the CD jacket is very small! Fortunately, the seasonal feelings, recognizable Temptations sound, and some Motown fun keep Give Love at Christmas a pleasing listen for a couple’s night in or trimming the tree with the whole family – so long as the kids don’t pick up on the whiff of soul saucy! 

03 December 2014

Christmas Is... Johnny Mathis

Christmas Is…Johnny Mathis, Who Knew?
By Kristin Battestella

I’m not sure what rock you’ve been living under if you haven’t heard any Johnny Mathis Christmas music lately, but the unusual Christmas Is… compilation perfectly fills any gap in your Mathis merriment.

With such a generic title, it’s actually tough to find information regarding the eponymous Christmas Is…, a slightly seventies dated but fitting opener setting the mood for the sentimental, soft sounds here. Carried over from Johnny’s perennial 1958 Merry Christmas album, the unfortunately infrequently heard It Came Upon A Midnight Clear adds a no less stirring lullaby reverence. At the opposite end of the seasonal spectrum, Jingle Bells – borrowed from the 1986 Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis – delivers some jazzy, ad libbing background singing and layered lyrical fun. It’s a pleasant ditty, but as the most rocking tune on Christmas Is… it’s oddly placed between two somber carols. Ave Maria, the longest track at four and a half minutes, hails from Mathis’ lone 1958 religious album Good Night, Dear Lord. Some of the notes aren’t as big as listeners might expect, but Johnny lingers on the Latin and harkens a smooth, medieval feeling. 

Today, you know there would be a dang twitter, tumbler, youtube channel, facebook page, star shaped pretzels, McDonald’s toys, and every other tie-in imaginable to go along with a single like When You Wish Upon a Star. This Disney delight arrives on Christmas Is… from the 1964 The Wonderful World of Make Believe Mathis album, and though at first it may seem like an odd choice for a holiday release, this quiet charmer fits in perfectly with the childish glee of the December toy shenanigans. The more mature Christmas Day repeats from Give Me Your Love for Christmas but Johnny brings on the innocent, reflective melancholy and sappy seasonal memories, quivering over the bittersweetness. Borrowing again from his Merry Christmas session, The First Noel provides more traditional Old World feelings for Christmas Is… with Johnny’s longwinded, digging deep reverence. There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to the track selection or the set order here, but the equal helpings of spiritual and secular still fit together thanks to Johnny’s classy vocals and suave arrangements.

Christmas Is… continues the Reason for the Season theme with Mathis and Gladys Knight’s 1980 duet When a Child is Born. This is a no less respectful song in its story of a peace bringing babe, yet Christ nor Christmas are never actually mentioned in the lyrics. Thanks to the great gospel vocals, however, listeners can still go for this carol per se either way– full of inspirational meaning or as an open global message. God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman, originally from the 1963 Sounds of Christmas along with the titular finale track, takes the ancient veneration further by using less orchestration to accompany the big, extended octaves. The Sounds of Christmas concludes Christmas Is… with more fun, festive, fitting Yule images to match its romantic pop topper. Ooo, how Johnny!

This is, of course, a somewhat recent budget CD release – complete with a totally tacky Photoshop cover – but come on, as if that first Merry Christmas album design with the fake snow and ski gear didn’t set the kitschy holiday bar! Overall, Christmas Is… is probably an uneven set with no method to the ten track order or its inclusion criteria for this short 34 minutes. Why aren’t these tunes in chronological order or paired like spiritual with like holiday pop? Why were elusive seasonal singles packaged with so many album repeats when there are certainly more December rarities? Fortunately, since Mathis is such a maestro of merry, these are all solid sounds for any holiday playlist regardless of any faulty packaging. The odd gems here not so easily found on other Mathis holiday editions or in today’s digital stores make Christmas Is… worth the impulse buy or CD pursuit.

02 December 2014

Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas

Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas, Indeed!
By Kristin Battestella

First Lady of Song Ella Fitzgerald makes a swanky 1960 holiday debut with Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas, and this is a hip education indeed thanks to the timelessly toe tapping renditions delivered here as only Ella can.

Sleigh Ride sets the feel good, brassy tone immediately, bringing effortless fun and a rousing but smooth mood. You really want to head out into the snow or jitterbug around your tree with the whole family thanks to Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas. I recently heard this version playing over the airwaves in a department store and found myself tapping along, regardless that I was probably embarrassing myself in public! Likewise, White Christmas (Swing) harkens the Crosby style with its breezy wartime-esque arrangement, yet this isn’t a crooning ballad but a dancing dinner party good time. Winter Wonderland continues this grooving, easy December with more festive notes. Despite Ella’s gloriously strong, happening delivery, we can still sing along because she’s just having such a great, infectious time. The speed kicks up a notch on Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas for a hep cat, clapping along Jingle Bells. The pace, backing singers, and Ella’s varying vocals feel like the dashing fun and racing peril of which the lyrics speak.

Let it Snow, however, is downright jazzy – a pouring cocktails and getting swanky fireside evening as the song’s story suggests. This album is certainly a family friendly listen, but also remains a very classy and adult, sophisticated sound superior to today’s often of the moment, trying too hard adult contemporary fickle, uneven efforts. Santa Claus is Coming to Town is indicative of the universal, longstanding flawlessness here. Rather than remaining a solely playful kid’s mindful and humorous tune, Ella bends on the theme with a catchy snapping your fingers vibe, making a swing standard sound one expects to toe tap over any time of year. The background singers and DeVol orchestration may date Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas for ultra modern millennial listeners – you hear the beats and immediately recognize the decidedly mid century design and rightfully presume it as “old.” However, this is the time of year when such quality, venerable tunes deliver on the merriment promised, unaware fifty years have passed.

Normally so wonderfully brooding and seasonally sad, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas makes room for Ella’s excellent and certainly Judy worthy voice whilst also keeping the cheek to cheek sway moving on Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas. Instead, the less frequently heard What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve serves up the swanky melancholy. This is yet another delightful ballad one could listen to year round just for Ella’s perfectly lovelorn, post war styled invitation. Not to be outdone, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman step up the elegant bemusement again by upgrading the expected juvenile with ritzy orchestration, catchy ad-libs, and more Ella feel good. I apologize if I’m repeating myself, but I’m running out of adjectives!

Maybe there are audiences out there who mysterious don’t like the blues, but Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas gets down with Good Morning Blues, remaining stylish with mostly just Ella and a piano for this Count Basie Santa ditty. The We Three Kings of Orient Are/O Little Town of Bethlehem medley represents the lone carols here – unlike the all spiritually laden, near perfect but too short 1967 Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas release, which contains both songs in full. Rather than feeling out of place, this one somber voice slowly, beautifully, and respectfully gives of itself for the spiritual meaning of the season. Yes, just, yes. Following the reverence, Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas goes tropical with Christmas Island. This simply charming, easy treat with fun lyrics adds more warmth and catchy spins on the season, yet another Ella rendition I’ve caught myself singing along to in public!

Going slow and soft, The Christmas Song is another track done in perfect time for a slow dance before that fire, wonderfully capturing the seasonal lyrics thanks to Ella’s kindhearted delivery. For all the show-stopping spectacles so called singers feel they must do today to sell records – err downloads on iTunes – Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas proves that a tender voice is all it takes to move a listener’s feet or heartstrings. For the Frosty the Snowman (Alternate Take), however, Ella changes up her delivery with a kiddie type vocal. Granted, this would seem goofy from any other singer, but Ella knows which words to make juvenile so there isn’t any unlistenable baby talk abundance. She can still hold some pretty big notes, too, and this is a fun moment for children to enjoy. The absent Santa Claus Got Stuck in My Chimney, of course, may seem kid friendly on the outside, but perhaps remains too suggestive to contemporary, naughty listeners, tee hee. Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas concludes with its longest track, a White Christmas (Slow) version capturing the melancholy moment with every note. It’s especially somber but nonetheless a swaying good time perfectly encapsulating the classic festive of the album and the season. There’s really no need to rush through the malls, pressure yourselves into giving presents, and buy buy buy when you could just swing.

Though not as short as Ella’s Christmas Album, with 16 tracks and at 44 minutes, Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas still feels too short. I want moar! The tracks themselves aren’t long – none reach four minutes and are on average two minutes and change. There are different track listings on the original LP and in several CD reissues, but a touching The Secret of Christmas and a longer, simmering (Alternate) The Christmas Song are part of the current Amazon download options. A completist might be made batty by all the odd editions or missing selections, and sadly, there isn’t always a lot of information available. Fortunately for Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered an album that was so gosh darn aptly named. This isn’t the bombastic, loud, marathon spectacle we may expect today, but this is a down right rhythmic good time guaranteed to put you in the swinging Christmas spirit. This session is not only perfect all season long, but at home, the office, for the kids, or the dinner party. If you are somehow one of the poor, unfortunate few souls who haven’t yet heard Ella Fitzgerald sing, press play on Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas ASAP.


29 November 2014

Contemporary Christmas Quickies

Contemporary Christmas Quickies
By Kristin Battestella

Though often longer than albums of yore, these more recent holiday releases provide mostly quality carols, big notes, affordable festives, and swift listening for today’s December audiences young and old.

Dream a Dream – Teen songstress Charlotte Church provides plenty of international caroling delights with O Come All Ye Faithful, The Little Drummer Boy, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, and What Child is This in this hour long best seller from 2000. Church belts out the titular hit along with lighter fair such as Winter Wonderland, The Christmas Song, and a whimsical Ding Dong Merrily on High, but the treat here is in the infrequently heard Coventry Carol, Gabriel’s Message, Draw Tua Bethlehem, and Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming.  Mary’s Little Boy Child and When a Child is Born remain softer melodies, and the carols keep on coming with Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Joy to the World, and Ave Maria. The lofty notes continue for O Holy Night before the fitting Silent Night finale. Of course, there are different track listings with The First Noel and O Tannebaum included depending on region or store exclusives, but download editions today offer the chance to pick and choose. This also isn’t exactly a laid-back listen for the kids to sing along – Church may even annoy some audiences, for not all Christmas tunes need a somewhat pretentious, so loud, and high sound that one can’t understand the usually casual or easy on the ear fair. This at times exclusive, stuffy feeling is perhaps why many people dislike carols or find them too churchly or old fashioned. Fortunately, operatic fans will delight nonetheless in the rarer carols and big arrangements here.

Joy: A Holiday Collection – Crossover singer Jewel appropriately adds happy choir motifs and keeps the traditional sounds of Joy to the World and Hark the Herald Angels Sing whilst also making this 1999 album a festive and modern 44 minutes. Where audiences perhaps expect bombastic, O Holy Night is surprisingly soft and subdued – a respectful voice and guitar are all that’s needed. Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Ave Maria, and I Wonder as I Wander continue the slow reverence, and originals tracks such as Face of Love, Gloria, and Hands keep the personal deep down and soulful. The Go Tell it on the Mountain/Life Uncommon/From a Distance medley brings an unfortunately less and less heard gospel rock out and Christian hope, but I wish these had been separate, longer tracks instead of a 6-minute medley. It’s also odd that “holiday” is part of the title when the folksy Winter Wonderland and quick Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer seem out of place amid the church going, decidedly spiritual content. Granted, some lyrics or notes will seem mumbly to those that dislike Jewel’s slightly shrill and yodel-esque singing style. However, this is a largely pleasant, tender session full of tradition that remains easy on the millennial ear.

Merry Christmas with Love American Idol crooner Clay Aiken sets the modern easy listening tone of this 40-minute, 2004 multi million seller with an O Holy Night opener while making more room for big notes and accents around the traditional styles of Silent Night and a Hark the Herald Angels Sing/O Come All Ye Faithful medley. Aiken keeps the swanky going through Winter Wonderland, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, The Christmas Song, Sleigh Ride, and Joy to the World. Granted, there are less carols here when one might have expected Clay to take on the more difficult or rare ones. However, new, big, melancholy pop renditions of Mary Did You Know, What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve, Merry Christmas with Love, and Don’t Save It All for Christmas Day more than make up any difference. The album as a whole perhaps plays it too safe in its primary focus to deliver the mellow merriment for maximum mainstream heartstrings – rather than bringing down the house or breaking the mold with more reverence, it keeps a cookie cutter design. That said, this does a pretty darn fine job in fulfilling that sentimental December demand, certainly evidenced by the platinum status and continued success here.

A Skipper!

Through the Many Winters: A Christmas Album – I always find it tough to listen to this 2005 40 minutes from ex-Doobie Brother Michael McDonald, whom I normally enjoy. I thought it was just me, but after reading other reviews for this session, it seems calypso O Holy Night, funk Come O Come Emmanuel/What Month Was Jesus Born In, and a – is that bluesy? –Deck the Halls/Jingle Bells are polarizing to most audiences. The eponymous track is far, far too long at almost seven minutes, and Silent Night sounds as if its guitar has popped a few strings. The Wexford Carol and Christmas on the Bayou are, well, unintelligible at times, God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman becomes a slow jam, and why is O Tannebaum here twice with an unrecognizable Auld Lang Syne? I get that most people today may not like ultra traditional carols. Unfortunately, this experimentation for the sake of it is too grating, even extreme, and I have no idea who the audience is for this kind of holiday album. Adult contemporary listeners will have their better favorites, and younger iPod audiences won’t be bothered to find something they like in this all over the place set.