We go a-caroling with new holiday music from Erasure, Kelly Clarkson, Matthew Morrison and DFW Actors Give Back
Erasure, Snow Globe. Let’s face it: The problem with most Christmas albums is that they either contain all the same, boring carols (“Silent Night,” “The Christmas Song”) or obscure medieval songs or — gasp! — “new” songs written specifically for the album.
Snow Globe does all those things. And it’s great.
Both “Silent Night” and “The Christmas Song” are on here, plus “A Midnight Clear,” “White Christmas” and “Silver Bells,” but they become Erasure songs, through-and-through. You won’t even recognize Chestnuts roasting on an open fire from the opening chords, with the synth-pop duo’s catchy, rhythmic syncopation, which sounds like the background score for Super Mario Bros. but blossoms into a full-orchestrated carol anchored by Andy Bell’s strong vocals.
On that, and many other tracks, there are definite Erasure signatures. But they also show themselves capable of evolving. On “Silent Night,” Bell’s voice recalls Art Garfunkle’s breathy mystery, but the baseline develops a la TransSiberian Orchestra to a somber track, perfectly at home closing out a Christmas Eve of hot buttered rum and warming toes by the fire.
“Gaudete,” the first single from the album (and the second track), is a 16th century hymn first re-imagined as a modern electronica piece in 1973 by British folk group Steeleye Span, and the arrangement by Bell and Vince Clarke both conveys sacred respectfulness and contemporary energy. If you’re gonna go obscure, go full-bore with Latin lyrics and a mix that could just as easy be a dance tune.
The dancefloor style goes Erasure-classic on “There’ll Be No Tomorrow”, which could be a forgotten recording from Erasure’s early days in the mid-1980s, from the echo-chamber refrain to the plucked synthesizer notes on the chorus. I’m not sure exactly what it’s doing on a Christmas album, but fans of the band will enjoy it for what it is: Electropop of the boogiest kind. No reason you can’t get down with Santa.
Kelly Clarkson, Wrapped in Red. Leave it to North Texas’ favorite chart goddess, Kelly Clarkson, to reinvent the holiday album with new songs that manage to conjure the past. The first two tracks on her Wrapped in Red CD — the title number and “Underneath the Tree” — were co-written by Clarkson, but produced in the Wall of Sound style, with a reverberant acoustic-electric mix and her voice piercing through. You might mistake either song for a forgotten Darlene Love follow-up to “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”
It’s not all a Phil Spector tribute album, but it is almost all good. “Winter Dreams” suggested the WofS with a hint of Duffy thrown in; on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” permanently ingrained in the gay psyche by Judy, Kelly adds only a trace of the vocal runs that characterize modern pop, and lets the glorious richness of this sentimental masterpiece shine through; and “Run, Run Rudolph” employs the brassy, blues-rock orchestrations the song was designed for.
Clarkson’s vocals are never less than phenomenal (she really is one of pop’s best belters), though on a track like “Every Christmas” she almost seems to put in more than the song calls for, and it’s all but impossible to sing “Blue Christmas” without inviting comparisons to The King. But with 16 songs covering more than 50 minutes of music, from country to classics, sacred to novelty, there’s plenty here to enjoy for seasons to come.
Matthew Morrison, A Classic Christmas. Before he was Mr. Shoe on Glee, theater queens knew Matthew Morrison as the silken-voiced stud of B’way shows like The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific. Morrison has continued to record (not always with great results) as well as act on TV, and his latest, an EP of holiday carols, probably won’t do much to extend his music career. Bit of free advice: Keep your day job.
There’s nothing wrong with Morrison’s singing, per se. He has clear tone and pitch, but this six-song collection (running under 20 minutes) has less edge than a butter knife. Christmas albums don’t need to be dark, but to stand out it wouldn’t hurt to have something other than a Vanilla Records slate of safe, familiar songs: “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Let It Snow,” “O Holy Night.” I sing more interesting songs in the shower on Christmas Eve.
And good tone doesn’t equate to creative phrasing or richness. On “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (the blandest of carols popularized by that blandest of singers, Andy Williams), Morrison actually make his voice spooky for the line scary ghost stories; it’s like he’s singing to kindergarteners. Bah, humbug.
Various artists, Holidazzle: Encore! “Most Wonderful Time of the Year” also kicks off this, the third Christmas album from the ad hoc nonprofit collective DFW Actors Give Back. But not only is it better produced, it’s followed by 16 more numbers, dense with engaging arrangements. Like previous incarnations (in 2009 and 2011) of Holidazzle, this one benefits a local children’s charity from sales of the CD throughout the Metroplex during the holiday season. And like the others, it’s a reminder of how much talent the North Texas has on its stages — and in its recording studios.
Once more produced by K. Doug Miller and Bob Hess, Encore! has a campy sensibility, such as the inclusion of “The Island of Misfit Toys” and the Jerry Herman anthem “We Need a Little Christmas.” That toggles to Gary Floyd’s lilting tenor on Joni Mitchell’s “River” (a melancholy stunner of a song in any context) and Liz Mikel dueting with John Venable on an earthy “Merry Christmas, Baby,” then transitioning into the layered harmonies on the mash-up of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Angels We Have Heard On High.” There’s literally a sound for every taste — making the CD ideas for any nog-sloshing holiday party. (And unlike most CDs, there’s actually a chance the artists on the album could be at your party.)
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 22, 2013.