20 December 2015

Celtic Woman: Home for Christmas

Celtic Woman: Home for Christmas Festive Despite A Few Hiccups
by Kristin Battestella

The 2012 holiday follow up Home for Christmas CD and DVD set from international group Celtic Woman isn't the ensemble's best Christmas fare. However, the songful revelry is nonetheless befitting of the season thanks to pleasing carols and festive fiddles.

I'll Be Home For Christmas is not the best place to start Home for Christmas, either, as newer band member Lisa Lambe provides a generic opener not as recognizable with that distinctive Celtic Woman sound. It makes a long time fan immediately miss the departed Lisa Kelly, and I always say Lisa Lambe in full to avoid confusing myself. Hark The Herald Angels Sing is the longest track at five minutes, and original Celtic Woman stars Chloë Agnew, Méav Ní Mhaolchatha, and fiddler Máiréad Nesbitt make this often upbeat carol a showstopper with rousing choir embellishments. I would think Chloë and Máiréad would do something more mature than the too cutesy and juvenile no matter how you jazz it up Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, but Silent Night and the returned Méav carry the right reverent, mellow, and sweeping angelic notes. Likewise, the ye olde spirit continues with the choir, orchestration, and harmonies in We Three Kings. We Wish You a Merry Christmas makes for an odd middle ode on Home for Christmas – one might expect to hear such well wishing nearer the finale instead of interrupting the carols for some pudding and sassy.

Fortunately, Méav and Máiréad, bring the heartstrings and octaves for the What Child Is This pre-Elizabethan flavor while Chloë adds more medieval revelry with an Adeste Fideles done in full on proper Latin sentiment. Winter Wonderland is again a bit out of place with some jazzy lines and alternating cues so each singer has her moment, and honestly, I would rather have had just Máiréad going all out with the toe tapping medley. The harmonies on Mary's Boy Child are nicer with charming verses and a pleasing chorus taking the tune up a notch, but Lisa Lambe's Auld Lang Syne is a weak denouement. During Celtic Woman's original 2004-2007 line up, even if you didn't know the ladies apart in look when you watched the PBS specials, you could identify each singer's voice on an album when you heard it. Lambe sounds like a stock studio singer, and Celtic Woman's increasing revolving door membership is unfortunately leading to a much more common assembly line sound. Today, you buy an album or tune in for a concert, and you never know what girls you're going to get. Although Joy to the World is a perhaps unusual conclusion, this is a nonetheless merry mix of solos and traditional choir rousing for an all out celebratory finale.

Despite the hiccups, I like listening to Home for Christmas as a CD, however, the companion Home for Christmas DVD concert included with the set isn't always an hour I enjoy. There's no Chloë. How is it Celtic Woman without Chloë? Producer and director David Downes is always nice to see, but with new member Susan McFadden filling in for the tour, Celtic Woman doesn't seem the same. McFadden and Lisa Lambe just seem interchangeable and indistinguishable to me, and neither actress seems capable of being a glass breaking diva like their predecessors. An ominous orchestral start on Winter Wonderland leads off the concert's different track order, but Susan is too pop sounding alongside Méav, Lisa Lambe, and Máiréad. It's also odd that the ladies are holding regular microphones instead of wearing the smaller ear pieces often used today. It's a simple thing, but seeing the mechanics so to speak takes a bit away from the group's previous arms free, flowing ethereal style, and this rendition is a soft, cutesy start compared to the sweeping opening numbers of previous Celtic Woman concerts. Thankfully, the white gowns, silver sparkling accents, and glittering red wardrobe change are fittingly festive for this Home for Christmas concert subtitled Live from Dublin, and Méav and Máiréad are much stronger for the stirring strings and What Child Is This somber for the season – where the vocals are allowed to hold all the spiritual notes.

The four person line up of only Susan, Méav, and Lisa Lambe singing with Máiréad's instrumentals, unfortunately, isn't as solid as the previous five person powerhouse, and the rock out harmonies on We Wish You a Merry Christmas feel off, again as does Lisa Lambe's I'll Be Home For Christmas. Maybe a pop arrangement instead of slow melancholy notes is okay, but this generic hip music machine churning out basic sounds that can be heard anywhere design seems contradictory to when Celtic Woman once brought unique international orchestration to the masses. I honestly don't think some of the new ladies can hit the high notes and thus all the production numbers from Live in Dublin are toned down accordingly. Poor Méav is stuck between the newbies for Hark The Herald Angels Sing, and while not as bombastic as the album recording, the straightforward backing choir makes for a pretty, rousing rendition. Meanwhile, instead of her own solo apart from covering Chloë's album track, Susan goes into the crowd for an awkward Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. Fortunately, the lower harmonies on We Three Kings are better – not to mention bagpipes, people, bagpipes – and in a welcome addition to the concert not on the CD, Máiréad does it again with Carol of the Bells. Why is she the one never going solo to make an album of weeping and rousing fiddlelry?

Home for Christmas' three singing ladies also speak briefly before the concert exclusive O Tannenbaum, and the variety of German, Italian, and English verses invokes more of the expected Celtic Woman mood. Likewise, Méav is again stirring for Silent Night as a woman standing still with nothing but the power of her voice to tell the creche miracle. Thank you! Strangely breaking up the largely carol focused night with kitschy fake falling snow, It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas probably should have started the concert, but I'd love to hear more of the slightly obscure and much more seasonably Celtic The Light of Christmas Morn. Susan also gets her own Live from Dublin solo for It Came Upon A Midnight Clear, and this gospel rendition with a wonderful choir is much nicer than Lisa Lambe's Auld Lang Syne. The poor concert goers are trying to sing along with the almost now unrecognizable tune! Thankfully, the Joy To The World finale is appropriately festive, and what's this? The Home for Christmas DVD bonus content includes another twelve plus minutes featuring all four ladies dressed casually and going a cappella – well, except Máiréad, hehe – around Downes and his piano. Holiday memories are shared, and Lisa Lambe is much stronger for Away in A Manger. Why wasn't this on the album? Susan is also delightful for The Christmas Song, but dang they could have done the entire concert with this relaxed, intimate atmosphere. Released as a bonus track on the Home for Christmas Special Edition, Méav's In the Bleak Midwinter gets everyone choked up, and last but most definitely not least, Máiréad joins in for Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. Golly gee, this set is better than the concert itself!

Celtic Woman die hard collectors can chase several additional tracks and international releases for Home for Christmas alongside the rehashed Silent Night and O Christmas Tree compilations, however the big numbers or the sit back and be awed vocals found in Celtic Woman's earlier line ups or the prior A Christmas Celebration album feel absent here. Despite having a majority of religious carols, the tone is a much smaller, more palatable easy forty five minute session. If you don't compare and accept the sweet seasonal mood here, Home for Christmas is a pleasing listen that does what it says in invoking a soft holiday atmosphere. The familiar carols make the CD a quick December staple to pick and choose for your playlist, and when not nitpicking at the included concert DVD, the video works in occupying the television for a festive background accompaniment to your holiday party, Christmas baking, or tree trimming.

17 December 2015

Winter's Knight

Winter’s Knight Uneven but Seasonably Fitting
By Kristin Battestella

Longtime listeners of the themed Nox Arcana gothic and macabre ambiance will enjoy Joseph Varga and William Piotrowski's 2005 debut foray into Christmas music with Winter's Knight. Yes, traditional holiday music audiences may disapprove of the medieval storytelling here, and the dark concept design is not without its flaws. However, the Gregorian tone and frosty bitter stylings give Winter's Knight a seasonal mood for celebrants not bound by the modern holly jolly constructs of Christmas.

Howling winds, church bells, and the short but spooky monologue of Vigil establish the bleak medieval Yule of Winter's Knight, and the poetic brooding segues into the pulsing, ominous rings and chanting chorale moments in Ghosts of Christmas Past. Period strings provide an enchanting sound for Ebonshire next – a wooded, outdoor chilly to match the creepy isolation and heavy chords of Solitude while the chimes and eponymous twinkle amid Crystal Forest create a glassy, delicate ice ballet. Unfortunately, at four and a half minutes, First Snow goes on too long, padding its harpsichord echoes and angelic, soft mood before Evening Star lulls like a louder escalation on the nighttime bleak from First Snow. Though it's all kind of pretty, we've been listening to the same chimes and chants for over seven minutes. Indeed, the first half of Winter's Knight suffers from too many repetitive tracks refraining one too many unnecessary times. An editor would certainly red pencil a stanza or two here! Reflections of Long Ago changes the atmosphere slightly with a sad, spooky, and bittersweet memory, however it's tough to appreciate our own childlike reminiscing or creepy toy recollections thanks to more of the gothic Specter Sound production laying it on thick. 

The waltzing organ and frenetic storm strings on December Winds create a blustery cool, but the welcome, tempestuous orchestration is again compromised by an incessant aaaahhhhh ahhhhh ahhhhh ahhhh. This same overproduced design carries over on several Nox Arcana albums, as if the duo simply won't let a song alone and must keep tinkering until every session sounds generally the same. Without looking at the tracks, it's tough to tell where one song ends and another begins – much less identify a tune by its opening notes. Outside of a precious few titles, listeners can't randomly put Nox Arcana songs into a playlist rotation, leaving one no choice but to play the entire sixty-three minutes of Winter's Knight in full. Thankfully, the organ start to Phantom Toccata is superb, like a spooky overnight shift at one of those old-fashioned, multi-floor department stores with a big pipe piece and scary Santa displays. Is that just me? Winter's Knight quickly transitions to the church bells and abandoned cathedral sounds of Hallowed Ruins, and while depressing at times, Winter's Knight has a very likable concept. I wish there was a ballet to visualize this lonely winter wonderland journey. It's only an odd minute, but the eerie vocals of Gregorian Hymn fit this ancient theme of music and voices. Yes, it is creepy but the rhythmic sway also makes for a beautiful period refrain. Rather than falling back on their familiar style, it might have been quite interesting had Nox Arcana done an entire album of older carols and traditionals in this medieval manner.

Comparatively, Spirit of the Season again sounds too redundant. Didn't we just hear this same tune five songs ago? Fortunately, the recognition of Coventry Carol helps Winter's Knight heaps. This is the kind of ye olde tune our titular wanderer would hear, and the connection of listening to something we know as old in this new spin is the seasonal smooth we expected all along. Often instrumental or rushed, this rendition provides clearly audible lyrics, creating a desire to minuet in a morbid jig. Lullaby continues this theme, but we just had a well done rhyme – making for another example of how too many similar songs with too many chants and chimes can at times become just background noise. The titular arias of Winter’s Knight, thankfully, are much nicer, providing the album's dark storytelling with somber cords and melancholy mood as well as calling into question the weaker soundalikes on the first half of the album. Slicing fifteen minutes off Winter's Knight would improve this tale in song tremendously, and the Greensleeves invocations, period strings, and Henry VIII source of Past Time with Good Company are simply divine thanks to the lovely female vocals. Here here for an entire album comprised of such revisited historical odes!

Likewise God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman is familiar and done right with a seasonal bleakness and dark times made at ease with a promise of Light. The organ and chant are brilliant, and we can still sing along to the bombastic bells. The second half of Winter's Knight is much more listener friendly and made much stronger by the Gregorian encapsulation of Veni Veni Emmanuel. The ghostly past of the album's theme is felt alongside the longstanding waiting for which we still light candles and sing songs. Though carrying the courtly sounds to match, Redemption feels slightly out of place amid this latter block of known carols – it may have fit better had it been placed before this spiritual denouement, as if our knight has found that titular peace and that is why we hear the subsequent carols. The haunting zest and recognizable Carol of the Bells anchors the Winter's Knight finale yet oddly stops at 3:25 with an unnecessary minute long silence before music box chimes, wind, and ghostly voices conclude the session. It's a stylistic choice I suppose, and while the album strays and wanders like its knight and treads tires in the snow at times, this medieval brooding is how Winter's Knight should be.

Occasionally, uneven sound design makes it tough to hear the lower background bells or echoes, and thanks to a frequent droning redundancy in the first half, Winter's Knight is almost there, but not quite. I like parts of the opening tunes, but not the entire track itself. I like Winter's Knight yet find myself pausing or skipping through the stock gothic sounds in favor of the superior medieval carol recordings. Though they have done numerous albums since, Winter's Knight sounds a lot like Nox Arcana's other macabre work, making for an odd mix of just right ye olde Yule and too much Halloween. The commercial holiday creep likes to combine these two seasons, but Winter's Knight fits better with some brooding October distance. This is an after Christmas album if you will, purely a windy winter mood setter or the soundtrack to a New Year's Eve masquerade. Understandably, that generic seasonal may annoy traditionalists. Despite the carols, there's precious few Birthly mentions here, as Winter's Knight is meant for audiences who don’t prefer the happy Christmas as is nor celebrate its Christian and religious aspects. By freeing itself of that December 25 timetable and the fourth quarter calendar cha ching, the medieval hearkening of Winter's Knight can be enjoyed by those of us who keep our holiday well into January's chill. 


10 December 2015

Songs for Swingin' Lovers!

Songs for Swinging Lovers Delivers
by Kristin Battestella

Frank Sinatra's quintessential 1956 album Songs for Swinging Lovers gets the toe tapping sentiments off to a quick, familiar start with You Make Me Feel So Young, and the spring in one's step continues in It Happened in Monterey. Though this lyrical story is bittersweet, the memory being retold makes us want to raise our glasses and spend the day upon the coast. It can be frustrating when the charm is over so fast thanks to the mid century shorter track times on Songs for Swinging Lovers. However, the one swanky after another tone makes it easier to listen to the entire forty forty minute album on repeat. You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me provides that wistful cheek to cheek – putting us in Ol' Blue Eyes' clutches indeed – and the mellow brass interludes of You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me make more excuses for a breeze across the rug. 
It's interesting for contemporary audiences like us to realize how the tunes comprising Songs for Swinging Lovers were already well known standards from films and the decades prior before Frank's swanky and the arrangements by Nelson Riddle revitalized their charm. The catchy crescendos and complimentary word play layers Too Marvelous for Words, and although it's the first slightly slower and longer ballad on Songs for Swinging Lovers, Old Devil Moon doesn't brood and maintains the danceable mood as the orchestra smoothly ups the pace. Of course, it's easy to sing along to the more famous Pennies from Heaven or sway with the Gershwins and Love is Here to Stay. Songs for Swinging Lovers feels like each melody pours another cocktail, letting the dinner candles burn down to the wick while you're getting lipstick on your collar.

Honestly, who doesn't like I've Got You Under My Skin? No one can ever be tired of Cole Porter, much less Frank Sinatra singing Cole Porter. It's an intimate, whisper in your ear to start before blossoming into a full blown itch that needs to be scratched. I Thought About You likewise carries a jovial mix of sweet crooning and peppy notes. Some listeners may dislike that many of these songs are somewhat the same – I feel as though I reuse the same superlatives sometimes, too. However, that privy concert mood is the point of the album. Songs for Swinging Lovers becomes like one whole song that ebbs and flows over the evening's flirtations. The dalliance, a withdrawal, the sweeping moments through the final hold her tight. Whew! At four and a half minutes, We'll Be Together Again is the longest track on Songs For Swinging Lovers. This mellow ode may seem out of place amid the otherwise up tempo sway, but a brooding breather is needed before another bottle is finished and a new waltz takes things to the next level. 
We may laugh at the dorky politeness of the phrase, but Makin' Whoopee has some delightful lyrical wit and a bemusing wink at the consequences of the night. Swingin' Down the Lane continues the will they or won't they dance with persuading talk of the moon, and Anything Goes reinforces the humble romantic Porter pleas. There's a hint of scandal and it's all so subtle yet remains no less rhythmic and catchy. At first, the wartime balladry of We'll Be Together Again seems like it should be the send off to Songs for Swinging Lovers. However, How About You? wonderfully concludes the session with a suave, shrewd encapsulation of the evening. Though recorded at the heights of a past we perceive as a “Honey, I'm home!” Cleaver chastity with pearls, Songs for Swinging Lovers is a giggly and giddy listen thanks to its nudge nudge naughty intentions and behind close doors baby boom results.

Songs for Swinging Lovers followed the melancholy spectacular of In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning yet nonetheless ingrains our collective consciousness with the quintessential Frank Sinatra hip. Sure, it doesn't have some of the bigger staples yet to come, but Songs for Swinging Lovers does what it says in delivering smooth, sexy charm. When you hear complete albums such as this, it makes one wonder why jazz standards and American songbook recordings ever fell out of mainstream favor – especially compared to today's inferior machine generated pop and controversial for the sake of it contemporary artists. With Songs for Swinging Lovers, modern fans can cleanse their palette, drink champagne, and repeat for all the sweet lyrics, big notes, and swift orchestrations. For longtime listeners upgrading their vinyl collection (like me!) or for those looking for a place to begin a Sinatra hobby beyond the frequent compilation sets, Songs for Swinging Lovers is the place to start. Simply put, this definitive 1956 Frank Sinatra album still makes for the perfect sophisticated party soundtrack or a classy, intimate denouement at home. 


08 December 2015

Frank Sinatra Spotlight!

A Frank Sinatra Spotlight!
By Kristin Battestella

Ring a ding ding! Let's takes some time during this festive season to honor what would have been The Chairman of the Board's 100th birthday. Collectors or completists and longtime listeners can always enjoy these sets, and budding fans can be gifted with some Sinatra education here. Now, on with the swing!

Capitol Collector Series – From “I've Got the World on a String” and “Young at Heart” to “High Hopes” and “Witchcraft,” this 1989 hour is brimming with fifties biggies be they brooding or brassy. Soft notes begin “I'm Walking Behind You” and the earlier, crooning sounds continue with “From Here to Eternity,” “Don't Worry 'bout Me,” and “Melody of Love” featuring bandleader Ray Anthony. “South of the Border” adds some swanky flavor alongside “Three Coins in the Fountain,” but despite its title, “Learnin' the Blues” remains a peppy hit. “Same Old Saturday Night,” “(Love Is) The Tender Trap,” and “Hey Jealous Lover” provide more catchy, and I think just about everyone can sing along to “Love and Marriage” of course thanks to Married...with Children. I must also confess, among other sports connections, my recently late and oldest cat was named after “Chicago.” A cute little dialogue leads into “(How Little It Matters) How Little We Know” while more romance anchors “Can I Steal a Little Love?” and “All the Way” before "Nice 'n' Easy" sends the session out on a breezy, finger snapping note. These twenty shorter tracks make for a great mix of more recognizable Sinatra staples, a few acclaimed film tunes, and songs that ironically carry a whiff of his Swoonatra, pre-Capital era – a fine blend for the veteran fan or would be listener.

Duets – No, this 45 minute later day revisit is not the purest in the titular sense. The stars here are at times practically singing along to Sinatra on the radio thanks to spliced vocals and an arranged production. Thus, I hate to say it, but not everybody can sing how Frank is asking them to do, and Julio Iglesias on “Summer Wind,” “You Make Me Feel So Young” with Charles Aznavour, and gasp Bono on “I've Got You Under My Skin” don't quite match. It's also odd to have men singing together in this uneven, tandem sense – perhaps all ladies would have been a better balance instead. Fortunately, the smooth works with Luther Vandross on “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “Come Rain or Come Shine” with Gloria Estefan, and for Natalie Cole on “They Can't Take That Away From Me.” The breezy ballad “What Now My Love” makes room for Frank's light and Aretha Franklin's big notes while the crooning pace is just right alongside Barbra Streisand in “I've Got a Crush on You.” Carly Simon accompanies more mellow in “Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry/In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” and Anita Baker provides sway for “Witchcraft.” “New York, New York” with Tony Bennett feels a little too strained to start, but I'll be damn if it isn't still rousing as is “I've Got the World on a String” with Liza Minnelli. “All the Way/One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” featuring Kenny G is the longest track here – almost twice as long as most of the other 12 songs. Admittedly, it's an odd choice to go with an instrumental pairing, too. But is this a brooding, befitting last call finale? Heck yeah. Granted, for die hard fans, these versions won't be as good as the originals. However, this session proves that the classics can swing in any era and that today's titans respect such standards – something I'm not so sure the millennial pop artists heavy on spectacle but light on true vocal talent are able to do. Thankfully, there's something for everyone here to pick and choose for their playlist rotation.

Frank Sinatra's Greatest Hits: Volume 2 – This 1972 Reprise compilation gathers some late sixties and early seventies suave, and of course starts with “My Way” – a somber but stirring indication of this session's more mature tone alongside “A Man Alone,” “Cycles,” and “Bein' Green.” Naturally, there's an air of soft, sweeping romance in “Love's Been Good to Me” and “I'm Not Afraid” as well as in the catchy covers of “Going Out of My Head” and George Harrison's “Something.” One of the longer songs of the 11 tracks here, “What's Now is Now” from the Watertown concept album still sounds fresh and swanky good. Though also quite fine, “Star!” feels a little bit too ritzy heyday and out of place both between two more serious tunes and in the set's overall melancholy theme. “The September of My Years” is a slightly earlier song, but a nonetheless fitting ode to wrap this swift but smooth 37 minutes. Yes, the bigger name staples are on the previous 1968 Frank Sinatra's Greatest Hits. However, those grossly uninformed who think Ol' Blue Eyes is nothing more than his fifties hepcat hip may be quite pleasantly surprised by these reflective measures, and Volume 2 matches its predecessor as a slower companion collection. Be it the soundtrack to an empty nest dinner for two or just some toe tapping mellow relaxation, older and wiser audiences will delight here.

Reprise: The Very Good Years – At 67 minutes, this 1991 single CD consolidation of the more extensive 4 disc The Reprise Collection is still relatively chronological and pretty all encompassing with expected Sinatra staples such as “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Strangers in the Night,” and “Love and Marriage,” plus live renditions of “I've Got You Under My Skin” and “The Lady Is a Tramp.” More swanky hits include “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Luck Be a Lady,” and that ritzy Chicago ode “My Kind of Town.”The Last Dance” brings a whiff of earlier wartime suave while “Night and Day” and “The Way You Look Tonight” provide some cheek to cheek alongside “Summer Wind” and “All or Nothing at All.” “The Best Is Yet to Come” adds more breezy while we sing – or at least try to sing along with “That's Life” and “My Way.” There are only a few slow, softer tunes here such as “It Was a Very Good Year,” “Send in the Clowns,” and “Nancy (With the Laughing Face).” Great songs though they are, their melancholy tone may feel out of place compared to the otherwise hip majority present. That always swinging indicative written on the sleeve is indeed compiled here with much of what we've come to know and love from the fifties and sixties Frank heights. Naturally, this hour goes out with a showstopping “New York, New York,” and somehow all is made right with the world because the Yankees won, teehee. This session is both a fix with all the essentials and provides some uniqueness thanks to that live sprinkle – making for a great starter set to get you going down the rabbit hole for more.

01 December 2015

The Essential Now That's What I Call Christmas

The Essential Now That’s What I Call Christmas Does What It Says
by Kristin Battestella

The Essential Now That's What I Call Christmas is a 2008 holiday collection brimming with 25 tracks for nearly 80 minutes of both traditional and contemporary Yule staples for one and all. Yowza!

Ironically, The Essential gets off to a bittersweet start with Happy Xmas (War Is Over) by John & Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir – a lovely but sociological somber that feels more like it should be a penultimate track. Of course, Elvis is on hand to serve up everyone's favorite little melancholy in Blue Christmas, and later on Wham! provides some more recent toe tapping sadness with Last Christmas. Fortunately, several mid century classics including It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year from Andy Williams and Dean Martin's Baby, It's Cold Outside set a more lighthearted seasonal mood as does the whimsical Johnny Mathis version of It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas. Burl Ives' A Holly Jolly Christmas adds some more peppy fun for The Essential alongside Little Saint Nick by The Beach Boys, and the kids can have a good time with Gene Autry's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late).

The Jackson 5's version of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town shakes up the merriment and Chuck Berry's Run Rudolph Run creates some groove – don't lie, everyone sings along to Elmo & Patsy's Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer and secretly dances to Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree by Little Miss Dynamite Brenda Lee. Oddly, rather than the Brenda Lee or Bobbly Helms versions, Hall & Oates take on Jingle Bell Rock is included here. However, the Now That's What I Call Christmas franchise is also only repeating a handful of songs or renditions on The Essential that were already included on previous Now That's What I Call Christmas Volumes 1, 2, or 3 – shrewdly swaying listeners to pick up this set to complete their holiday music collection. José Feliciano's Feliz Navidad and Paul McCartney's Wonderful Christmastime fit The Essential's catchy theme, but the Donny Hathaway original This Christmas plays suave alongside Elton John's throwback Step into Christmas.

Two new in 2008 singles Mistletoe from Colbie Caillat and Ledisi's very smooth This Christmas (Could Be the One) feel a little less famous and slightly out of place amid the classic names. Indeed, there are a few songs on The Essential I could do without – some are certainly more perennial or timeless compared to others steeped in their dated era. Too much of the engineered pop saccharin sounds the same after awhile, becoming nothing but holiday background noise. As much as this session provides some titular must haves, there are certainly several big songs missing – cough The Christmas Song and White Christmas cough – not to mention the lack of, you know, Christmas carols. The Little Drummer Boy from the Harry Simeone Chorale is an unusually old fashioned choice for The Essential, and Do You Hear What I Hear? by Carrie Underwood and Amy Grant's Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song) mark a brief spiritual block of longer, reverent ballads before The Essential concludes with a slightly misrepresenting but no less gentle and appropriately fitting Silent Night from The Temptations.

Yes, the numbers, volumes, and titles of these Now That's What I Call Christmas sets can become increasingly confusing. The Essential will repeat hits you already have on other combination collections and original albums. This CD is packed with mostly shorter tracks, and the mix is uneven with some songs being louder or at a lower volume than others. There are precious few powerhouse vocals or ballads and only a handful of religious tunes. However, the catch all by design also makes it easy to skip to your favorites. By and large, these are the original editions we want to hear, not generic covers or instrumentals often found on cheap compilation sets. The Essential Now That's What I Call Christmas is a breezy, safe potluck of secular classics, contemporary rock, and seasonal pop. Be it the office playlist or a fast all in one place download, there's a little something for everyone to be found here.

30 November 2015

Motown and Soul Gift Goodness!

Motown, Soul, and Sweetness!
By Kristin Battestella

What's not to love about these great gentleman – and some of their special lady compatriots – when there are such sweet compilations like this to gift, enjoy, and sing along again and again? That's what I thought!

The Best of The Temptations Millennium Collection Volume 1: The 60s – The title is a mouthful and this decade leg is not nearly as exhaustive as my beloved Temptations Anthology LP set, but the big Motown tunes such as “My Girl,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” and “Get Ready” are here. However, I won't lie, my sole purpose in picking up this CD was for the Diana Ross and the Supremes powerhouse duet “I'm Gonna Make You Love Me.” Hot Diggity! The staples are generally in chronological order from “Beauty is Only Skin Deep,” “Ain't Too Proud to Beg,” and “You're My Everything” to “I Wish It Would Rain,” “(I Know) I'm Losing You,” and “Can't Get Next to You.” Regardless of who's singing lead, if you like one tune, you like 'em all! I can't believe I had almost forgotten some of the songs I hadn't heard in a long time, but then it's all the nicer when you hear them again without any vinyl hiss. It's sad that this half hour session goes by quick, as there is certainly enough material and disc space to have something longer. The track list here isn't totally comparable to the group's first 1966 Greatest compilation, either, so why skimp customers into a Volume 2 and leave an early hits set incomplete without “The Girl's Alright with Me” and “Since I Lost My Baby”? Although “Cloud Nine” feels slightly psychedelic soul tacked on, I can accept the fact that my favorite “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” doesn't meet the inclusion criteria – for the title does indeed do what it says in capturing the classic Smokey Robinson produced era of the group. This is an affordable download or easy gift for the nostalgic audience to revisit some excellent music.

The Greatest Hits of Jackie Wilson – Can you imagine the media frenzy that would follow him if Jackie Wilson had lived today? There are indeed numerous compilations featuring the late star, but this 1998 CD is quite complete with 16 songs including everything from the catchy brass of “Reet Petite” and simply dreamy “To Be Loved” to us all trying to sing along with “Lonely Teardrops” and of course, “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” The foot tapping doesn't let up with “That's Why (I Love You So),” “I'll Be Satisfied,” and “Talk That Talk,” and the sweeping romance blossoms with “Night,” “Doggin' Around,” and “A Woman, a Lover, a Friend.” That's already all the magic for most albums, but “Am I the Man” and “Baby Workout” add more grooving while “Danny Boy” provides mellow high notes. Later career hits “Whispers (Getting Louder),” “I Get the Sweetest Feeling,” and “You Got Me Walking” conclude this quick moving session, and with most all tracks under three minutes, a lot is packed in to this 43 minute set. A similar song listing is on the earlier 1994 The Very Best of Jackie Wilson, however neither has a companion download edition compared to the more recent two disc Ultimate Jackie Wilson release. Smooth sounds at the office or accenting dinner for two – this is a great starter gift for newfound fans as well as an essential for any classic soul lover.

Marvin Gaye 15 Greatest Hits – Talk about some more turbulence in which TMZ would revel! This 1990 hour starts with “How Sweet It Is to be Loved by You,” ends with the twelve minute “Got to Give It Up,” and has quite a bit of pleasure and commentary in between with “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby,” “Let's Get It On,” “What's Going On,” and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).” While hits such as “I Heard it through the Grapevine” and the “Your Precious Love” and “You're All I Need to Get By” duets with Tammi Terrell are here, “Ain't Nothing like the Real Thing” and “Ain't No Mountain High Enough” also with Terrell are unfortunately absent, as is “Sexual Healing.” Thankfully, the Diana Ross duet “My Mistake (Was to Love You)” is included, and there are several other duets-alone compilations to be had. There's such a goldmine of Marvin both with and without his girls, I guess there had to be a cut off somewhere, and some of the tracks here are the shorter, single edits rather than the full album versions. “Ain't That Peculiar,” “That's the Way Love Is,” “Trouble Man,” and “I Want You” provide more swanky, smooth, and grooving hits while “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)” continues the social statements. Again, some of the glaring absences leave a slightly incomplete feeling. However, I don't want to call this a 'budget' CD edition simply because this is still a lengthy session brimming with such sweet sounds – making for a delightful fix for mind and body.

These be skippers!

The Drifters 20 Greatest Hits (1993) and The Drifters Greatest Hits (1991) – I have to say, it is a right major pain in the fricking arse being a fan of The Drifters – a group that has had no less than fifty band members in its revolving door line up. Seriously, go have a look at the who's who chart on their wikipedia page! New or returning incarnations either attempt to differentiate as 'so and so with The Drifters' or 'The Drifters featuring who' billings while other same name line ups feel like they are trying to trick you with their inferior remakes, deceptive covers, and sound alike re-recordings of the classic Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King, and Rudy Lewis fronted tunes. Often, it feels like unless you have the original LPs or 45s, you don't know what you're going to get on a CD or download, and like other classic rock and roll listeners, it is those R&B paragon originals that I want to hear. So, I've attempted to discern the tunes here to save us some trouble. Unfortunately, outside of poorly remastered, seemingly spliced up combinations, or live cover versions of “Ruby Baby,” Money Honey,” “When My Little Girl Is Smiling,” “Saturday Night at the Movies,” “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” “Another Saturday Night” “My Girl,” “I'll Take You Home,” and “Honey Love,” the remaining 11 of the tracks on 20 are copycat editions. On the 1991 compilation, gasp only my favorite “There Goes My Baby” and “Sweets for My Sweet” are the 'original recordings by the original artist.' I dearly love the mid-century heyday of this group and consider them one of my most beloved essentials in early rock studies, but my word the studio controlled or management owned rights battles and rocky rivalries make it nearly impossible for today's new listeners – and resentful classic fans – to appreciate The Drifters' impeccable catalog thanks to mash ups like the two here.

29 November 2015

Coriolanus (2014)

National Theatre Live's Coriolanus a Rip Roaring Performance
by Kristin Battestella

After having seen the 2011 film version of Coriolanus starring director Ralph Fiennes, I was quite keen to watch this 2013 stage production of Coriolanus presented by the Donmar Warehouse and broadcast internationally through the National Theatre Live program in 2014. Unfortunately, it would seem I live in the uncultured sticks, as during its initial live capture run, Coriolanus never came to a cinema near me – until this fall's encore season that is!

Roman general Caius Martius (Tom Hiddleston) single handedly captures the town of Corioli from his Volsican enemy Aufidius (Hadley Frasier). Now coined Coriolanus, Martius returns to Rome where his mother Volumnia (Deborah Findlay) and long time friend Senator Menenius (Mark Gatiss) urge him to become consul. Tribunes Brutus (Elliot Levey) and Sicinia (Helen Schlesinger), however, use Martius' crass exterior and poor opinions of the common people against him, resulting in his banishment from Rome. Will Coriolanus ally with Aufidius and march on his former homeland or do his familial ties to Rome hold a fatal influence?

Film versus Stage Design

Where Fiennes used his adaptation as a modern, war-torn, political commentary, director Josie Rourke presents her Shakespeare in a slightly abstract morale space, creating a classical feeling like Clash of the Titans where the gods place the players in the arena as though they were mere chess pieces. While the costume design may be generic and modern, precious few props leave nothing but the intimate sword fighting, arguments, escalation, and turnabout drama to tell the tale. Brief, slightly loud music covers the simple set and scene changes, but Coriolanus uses the small Donmar Warehouse staging to its advantage with shadow and lighting schemes – color lights differentiate locales, smoke fills the battles, and spotlights or darkness are used for surprise character entrances and exits. Graffiti painted on the wall and sparse background projections or graphics accentuate dialogue points while the central stage ladder is both used in battle scenes and stands symbolic of the social highs and lows. Boxes are painted on the floor to define where action takes place – or where one may stand inside to be judged – and the showering onstage multitasks by shrewdly saving time and washing the set clean as it reveals the painful bloodshed. Superb pops of red on the wall, floor, and the actors themselves create visual emphasis alongside flares, falling flower petals, and scarlet ballot papers littering Coriolanus with more representative details. The cast moves about the stage, adding more treats for the eye to follow, and the National Theatre Live presentation is well edited for the cinema. We see the cameras around the stage at times, but the machines doing the magic don't feel intrusive thanks to the varying up close shots, zooms, and camera angles they provide. Coriolanus is not one unmoving videotape, nor do we need that type of pulled back, full view of the Donmar. Rather than frame the scope of the production, the lense here slowly closes in on the only thing that matters: the people upon the stage.

Granted, Fiennes' Coriolanus film has more star power name recognition, and it is a treat to see such players in real life warzones chewing on meaty political commentary and modern media statements. Here, however, the taut ensemble is ready to race – this Coriolanus is a contest and the audience is waiting to see whose ruthless will be the victor. Sure, most viewers may already know who the eponymous loser is, but that doesn't deflate the packed drama. Even understandably condensed and paired down with altered scenes, a lot happens on this Donmar stage, and Coriolanus is a well paced, fast moving three hours. It's amazing how much can be said in one scene, let alone how much heavy can happen from one minute to the next. The public is so fickle amirite, and this squeeze happens quickly. Martius, his family, the Volsci, the Roman Senate, tribunes that rise or fall on the people's whim – nobody really wins in Coriolanus. Without the contemporary spoon-fed simplicity to which the audience is accustomed, all that remains is the emotion and corruption spearheading the dramatis personae toward the inevitable. By second the half of play, we don't even need the sparse stage dressings to be steeped in what's happening. The lights themselves close in on our protagonist, dwindling the the stage space until there is one lone chair and nowhere else to go. Ultimately, it isn't quite fair to compare the movie and this play edition, as the former relies on multiple film takes over weeks at a time with crew to perfect an overall encapsulation. That's tough enough, but it's amazing how here Coriolanus was performed day in and day out for weeks in its entirety. On the spot, no mistakes – there's nothing on which to rely but the ensemble's words, once again proving that intensity can be found just by people observing other people in a dramatic situation, no bombastic and CGI needed for the bravo here.

The Man of the Hour

Well then! Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers, Crimson Peak) is hefty, muscular, and unrestrained as Caius Martius Coriolanus. He bangs on a feeble pedestal to plead his case, spits when he shouts – I swear I could hear his leather gloves flex as he squeezed his fists. There are no over the top theatrics, and Hiddleston remains commanding with an unblinking, award winning, ticking clock fervor. He throws chairs, climbs ladders, is dosed in water and blood – the stage is his and he uses every element of it to craft this imposing, unlikable figure. Hiddleston is loud and intense but also whispers, becoming incredibly emotional and moved to manly tears whether he is on the dark stage near alone in brief soliloquy or surrounded by the ensemble in mock battle. Martius is svelte and war fit but a brute in his speech and mannerisms, unaware that the Senate is not the right time or place for his gruff attitude and hatred of lesser people breathing his air. Like Gretzky or Jordan, he could not base himself to lesser athletes' levels even if he were so inclined. He does not comprehend why he would try to be anything other than the soldier he is or play a political game to appease others and instead mocks public customs. Ironically, it's almost heroic how he keeps to his warped convictions – Martius is not without kindness when it comes to his men and an enemy that helped him. He appreciates battlefield respect, and although the audience sees the pain of his wounds and showering cleanse, he is correct in saying that we mere civilians can't understand what goes on in war. Unfortunately, any such truisms won't stop those more shrewd from manipulating this warrior and his weaknesses as an inept politician with no people skills.

From Loki to Henry V, several of Hiddleston's previous characters have had “daddy issues,” but our titular, one man, city destroying machine is a whipped and easily swayed mama's boy who does what he is told. “Theirs not to reason why...” and when Coriolanus does play beyond his political means, indeed it's “do or die” as Tennyson says. Hiddleston spends nearly half the play with one arm in a sling, wonderfully symbolic of how his lack of a political silver tongue ties one hand behind his back. They all twist his arm – the unlucky left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. Wrong in his arrogance as he is, once Martius is used for everyone else's gain and kicked to the curb for sticking to his guns, his brought low and made humble flaws become relatable, even humorous in this ironic turn from famous and strong to ignoble nobody. His body itself parallels the stage's graffiti and visual design– his wounds written upon him in battle again and again. Hiddleston stands back against this wall out of the spotlight until needed for Martius to be hosed down and made clean only to be bloodied again. This Coriolanus gives precious few character asides to tell us Martius' inner feelings, but thanks to this dynamite, nuanced performance from Hiddleston, we see Caius break. The audience doesn't blame him for embracing his emotional realizations and finally having a heart – even if this vulnerability is his final detriment. Whether he deserves his fate or not, in the end, does it really matter? Everyone wants a piece of Martius, and the wounds these dishonest wordsmiths give him are more fatal than his hard earned battle scars. In both senses of the word, he is a tool used and abused at the whim of others for bloodshed – be it enemy blood or his own. Whew. Hiddleston delivers an almost religious and Shakespeare made flesh overture in Coriolanus, but my goodness those fruit in the face zingers must have stung!


The Women in his Life

While Hiddleston may be the most famous player in Coriolanus and certainly makes his case for a captivating, blood-and-guts, one man show, Deborah Findlay (Cranford) comes close to stealing the play as Martius' vicariously living through him mother Volumnia. This self styled Madonna feels Rome's power via her son – a tall order that may be over the top for some viewers unaccustomed to theatre exaggerations. However, Volumnia's spectacle fits and spells are also intentionally emphasized to force her mighty son to kneel, cower, and tremble in her wake. Volumnia takes over every situation and assures her will be done, often shrewdly by planting the seed and letting her opposition feel they hold the decision. A husband, Cauis' father, or other customary Roman male relation is never mentioned, implying a lone woman suffering as she bore this son, rising him up to battle glory as an extension of herself and her name. Volumnia would be Martius' everything as he is hers – a heavy maternal hand and one of Shakespeare's stronger written women because she in many ways rules with a masculine fist over her son. Martius bleeds for Rome, but she has already bled for him and never misses an opportunity to recall her womanly superiority and womb trump card.

Volumnia is revered as having saved Rome and receives all the recognition she desired, but its bemusing that there's been some historical confusion over the similar names of Coriolanus' wife and mother – almost as if they were one woman, not two. Volumnia keeps her son's marriage stunted, almost as if she is in the bed between them. She uses Virgilia to soften Martius as needed, grooming them both and controlling her daughter-in-law like an approved surrogate. Volumnia schools her grandson, and as written, Vrigilia doesn't have much to do but speak when spoken to, assure Martius' lineage, and sew. Fortunately, Rourke uses the silent staging to her advantage, placing Birgitte Hjort Sorensen (Borgen) outside the painted square but in view during Volumnia's plots. She's listening from the shadows, showing how Virgilia isn't always content that Volumnia is first and she is second in Cauis' life. Her tenderness and soft, household balance shouldn't be an afterthought or deemed as inferior to her mother-in-law's marital intrusion. Sorensen matches the cast with her look and poise, and again the astute play movements often have Findlay in the background of the frame – the third figure between Caius and Virgilia. Unfortunately, these ladies have opposite interests for Martius, and only one will have her way.

Our Ensemble

Elder statesmen Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) as Senator Menenius and Peter de Jersey (Broadchurch) as the Roman commander Cominius likewise add brevity and staunch countermeasures in Coriolanus. Each father figure has his turn to levy on Martius' shoulder, with Menenius playing politician as a devilishly dressed whimsical gentleman and Cominius the loyal battlefield angel. Unfortunately, Martius heeds neither of them and pays a hefty price thanks to Hadley Frasier (Phantom of the Opera) as the Volscian leader Aufidius. Frasier doesn't have as much to do as the rest of the ensemble and is smaller in stature than Hiddleston but he is no less dangerous in his words or blows. There's a different energy to the Volsci scenes, and Aufidius looks ready to pounce on Coriolanus as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Martius took his sword in battle, emasculates him, and Aufidius bides his time until their rematch, toying with his prey like the lion in the arena. Aufidius is both a political and military leader who knows how to succeed – unlike Martius, who mocks commoners so easily yet fails to see when someone else is messing with him. When Martius makes Aufidius look bad, lets his guard down, and asks his enemy to advise him on what to do...Whelp! It's interesting how we look back to Shakespeare or the likes of The Tudors for our scandal and drama, yet The Bard himself looked back into earlier history to find the political parallels of his tragic “Roman Plays.” Five hundred years or fifteen hundred and have we learned our lesson yet? Nope.

Love to hate muckrakers – er tribunes Elliot Levey (Da Vinci's Demons) as Brutus and Helen Schlesinger (The Way We Live Now) as Sicinia are a lot like Volumnia in many ways. Both the powerful opposing women wear purple, however the tribunes' calculating is not with one man, but a dangerous game with the people of Rome. Their ploy manipulates the public into betraying Coriolanus, and their politicking happens not on the battlefield but inside the increasingly smaller senate space. Martius is literally boxed in upon their stage with nothing but speeches in this match, and he is not up to par compared to these deceptive wordsmiths. Their orchestrate from the back underhanded has little backbone compared to commanders who lead the charge, and the tribunes can't just press the reset button when Martius' turnabout goes wrong for Rome. Coriolanus is already a political play, and recent global events in the weeks before this encore only add more dimension to Shakespeare's perennial examination on the state of affairs. At times, the multiple roles played by Jacqueline Boatswain (Hollyoaks), Mark Stanley (Game of Thrones), Roschenda Sandall, and Dwane Walcott can be confusing due to subtle costume changes or a dialogue delay in whether they are Roman or Volsican. Fortunately, this small ensemble necessity also works in the play's favor, for indeed the highs and lows on both sides of conflicts are ultimately one and the same. Although Alfred Enoch (Harry Potter) appears as Lartius largely in the first half of Coriolanus before disappearing, it might have been neat to see him play both this Roman and the Volsican lieutenant to hit that common soldier point home. Lastly, I must also applaud Coriolanus for the colorblind and gender-blind casting of this production. It's sad and I'm sorry to say, but simply put, we don't see that type of equality in the mainstream industry stateside.

A Theatre Experience

For this encore showing I attended, there was a group of girls in the back of the cinema who kept laughing at the wrong time. Whether that was due to a Hiddleston effect, lack of Shakespearean comprehension, or perhaps both, I don't know. There was also a loud pretentious young couple who announced that they were going to carry on their conversation in Italian – presumably just because they could and wanted everyone to know it? Though at a small independent venue, the showing was filled to near capacity with a slightly older, mature, educated audience who did chuckle at the right Shakespeare puns, and it is nicer to be amid an intellectual audience for a change instead of the increasingly popcorn bombastic. The downloadable audio commentary featuring some of the cast and crew is also an interesting addition to Coriolanus, and it's neat that new exclusive content could still be added to make the encore screenings even more special. I completely understand the National Theatre Live's goals in wanting to bring people to a regular movie “theater” to expand interest in “theatre” and it is a catch-22 to release Coriolanus on DVD and risk losing this unique combination cinema experience. However, I do believe that interest in National Theatre Live's programs would be maximized with some sort of free video content or streaming subscriptions and official online availability. Instead of wasting time with trailers, a short behind the scenes for Coriolanus and a history of the Donmar Warehouse lead into the play and there is an intermission half way through for audiences to break without interfering with the show. What's this time to cater to a moviegoer's mind and body? Pfft big blockbusters packing in the most screenings possible don't have time for that!

I don't often review theatre programs like Coriolanus because most special presentations such as this don't come to my area and traveling far isn't always an option. Must I spend two days in New York City every time I want to see a three hour play? I'd love to see the National Theatre Live's Frankenstein presentation, and I wish I could see another production directed by Rourke or more from the Donmar Warehouse. This is a lot to take in live, granted, and Coriolanus should probably be seen more than once if possible – thrice with the commentary. Coriolanus asks an audience usually dulled by their entertainment to instead infuse our time with history and tragedy. In an era where billion dollar record breakers rule the box office each year, Coriolanus proves there is still room for quality alternative cinema and innovated outside the box drama. Amen!