Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Memories of "Merry"...
Sweetness, Sacred Songs, Sass, Sentiment, and Santa
(Seasonal sounds, part 1)
Reviews by Rob Lester

Also see Part 2 of our look at 2020 holiday releases

Whether your passing days have been dragging along or blurring by, there's no denying that the march of time has led us to December—and that means those holiday-generated songs are back in the air. Listening to them may feel different in the context of where we are (or wish we were) in 2020, a year like no other. Of similar mind were those who performed the material for new recordings. Hark! Do you hear what I hear?


Broadway Records
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You may wonder what the hell is going on: A set of Christmas and Christmas-adjacent songs taken on by the cast of a musical set in the underworld? It's understandable if you wrongly assumed that the company of Hadestown was hijacking the seasonal repertoire to devilishly dish out something all about dark and snark. Instead, they bring some heavenly harmonies, reverent renditions referencing the birth of Jesus, sweetly innocent salutes to Santa Claus and fun in the snow, and pleas for peace. There's some zeal and humor along the way in the camaraderie, too.

The title, If the Fates Allow, serves in a clever/conveniently coincidental capacity. We recognize the phrase as a key line in the included classic "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and, in Hadestown on Broadway, characters called The Fates were played by Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer and Kay Trinidad, appearing here on all 14 tracks, each getting a turn to step out as leader. The show's other major players each have a song to take over the spotlight and the large ensemble joins in on four selections.

The repertoire for the trio samples many genres and attitudes. They're relaxed on the frothy oldie "Sleigh Ride," excitable and bright as menorah candles on "8 Days (of Hanukkah)," and show gravitas with "Song of the Magi" (lead vocal by Blackman). That last-named item pays respect to Hadestown's writer Anaïs Mitchell, as this seasonally appropriate piece is one of her compositions, which she recorded on the 2007 release, The > Brightness.

André De Shields hams it up as he struts through "Blue Christmas." On "Come healing," Patrick Page with his basement-deep timbre suggests Leonard Cohen, its original performer/co-writer (with coincidentally named Patrick Leonard). Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada join the Fates and ensemble for "Winter Song" by Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson, with its hushed, haunting, and anchoring question, "Is love alive?" "The Longest Winter" (Liam Robinson/Jean Rohe) features Amber Gray's plaintive vocals punctuated by pizzicato strings and plenty of echoing and overlapping backing sounds. But the company is packed with exciting voices, as proven by the savvy decision on a Motown throwback to give each of seven singers a chance, in turn, to take a solo: in addition to the three capable females you'll hear Malcolm Armwood, Kimberly Marable, T. Oliver Reid, and Khaila Wilcoxon. The ever-relevant treat in question is the optimistic hope for a world where freedom replaces wars, "Someday at Christmas" by Ron Miller and Bryan Wells, introduced by Stevie Wonder in 1966 and recently revived by Miller's impressive grandson, Oliver Richman.

With a couple of exceptions, sole credit for vocal arrangements goes to the nine-person band's music director Liam Robinson (heard on piano, accordion, banjo, and some percussion), and Todd Sickafoose gets sole credit for arrangements and orchestrations (he also provides additional keyboard and percussion contributions). David Lai is music coordinator. All are on the recording's producing team and were part of the Hadestown Broadway contributors, making If the Fates Allow all the more a family reunion.


Working Girl Records
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Rest ye merry, gentlemen and ladies. Just what the doctor ordered as a balm for non-stop stress is the efficacious Comfort and Joy provided by the soothing sounds, sensibilities, and sensitivity of Liz Callaway's singing and the sole (and soulful) accompaniment of Peter Calo. The lady with the warm smile in her voice and the master guitarist (adding some keyboard duties) dare to be spare and the effect is utterly disarming. Absent what can be commonly employed Yuletide clutter—the go-to jingling bells and whistles, heavy decorations, or choristers—the core of a song's emotion is laid bare. We're pulled in by the immediacy of the intimacy, soothed by the tonic of the gentle approach. Guitar accompaniment is delicate; coaxing and caressing melodies as lyrics are thoughtfully considered and imbued with unabashed sentiment. Spot-on use of vibrato ups the ante. Although her liner notes tell us that the two only met this year, there's a simpatico connection in the Calo/Callaway chemistry (the two co-produced the project).

The musical comfort food of Comfort and Joy contains no added sugar or artificial ingredients. Liz Callaway's 10-course banquet has been preceded by years of holiday appetizers. One example is "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which she sang with an orchestra, released on both the multiple-artist album A Broadway Christmas and her five-item EP, Merry and Bright, from several years ago. Now, with just Peter Calo, she re-records it with extra compassion. The new package also finds her soloing with trademark sincerity and crystal-clear voice on two numbers she recorded in the past as duets with sister Ann Hampton Callaway: a reverent "O Holy Night" and "God Bless My Family," the latter written by her sibling. But her duet partner this season is Jann Klose, joining Liz for a dreamlike spin through "Walking in the Air" from the animated film The Snowman. (This one arrangement is by Klose, but otherwise the repertoire's atmospheric and tasteful treatments are by Mr. Calo, who also did the mixing.)

This leading lady shows her way of making a holiday memory palpable, whether evoking gratitude, peace on earth, or making peace with a compromised Christmas season. Secular or sacred, everything rings true. "Carol of the Bells" reverberates with more voices layered in and is preceded by the carol whose lyric is referenced by Comfort and Joy's title, "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." Two representatives from the songbook of the late Carol Hall starkly contrast the holidays of the "haves" and the "have-nots." They are, respectively, the cozily contented "Christmas Eve (Could Not Ask for More)," a collaboration with Alex Rybeck, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas's stiff-upper-lip "Hard Candy Christmas." Whether holiday time makes you lament or feel content, the way LIz Callaway and Peter Calo grace Christmas songs is a gift.


Candy Cane Records
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Even the sobering hard truths about facing a "Hard Candy Christmas" can't really dampen the rampant, ramped-up holiday spirit at the party with Marty Thomas and Marissa Rosen. The chummy big-voiced singers share this Broadway number's bittersweet look at possible future routes with a bevy of notable female guest vocalists. Included among them is actress/ace impressionist Christina Bianco, whose invitation might imply adding a dash of the flavor of Dolly Parton who starred in the movie version of the musical from whence it came, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The on-target Bianco is a hoot as Celine Dion (restricted to just the accent and inflections of her spoken voice) in a showbiz-skewering skit that imagines the Thomas/Rosen duo being honored for their recording. That explains the cute conceit of the title, The Award Winning Holiday Album, and sets up its ambiance of fun and festivities, with seven songs to follow up the comedy routine.

Energy is never in short supply in this gleefully boisterous romp. From the score to Elf: The Musical comes the perky assertion that "There Is a Santa Claus" embraced as the stubborn antithesis of fake news. The delight and enthusiasm are adorable. On the other hand, I may seem like a Scrooge to find the fluffy "Puppies Are Forever" resistible, but its heavy dose of closely repeated lyric lines grates on my nerves. Donning their strong suits, Marty Thomas elsewhere powerfully indulges his fondness and knack for bluesy R&B wailing (in the best sense of the word) and Marissa Rosen is feisty and irrepressible.

Everyone seems to be having a swell time, including the cloned vocals of Marty and Marissa themselves as their own back-up singers. Music maestro Yasuhiko Fukuoka also mixed and mastered this merriment. There's no nod to the religious side of Christmas, but the Jewish winter holiday gets a highly kinetic cameo counting down "8 Days (of Hanukkah)" spinning into the old "Dreidel Song" for a little bit. The spunky, splashy doings of The Award Winning Holiday Album at least deserves an award for cheerful cheerleading—which might encourage listeners to follow their lead.


Honey Bun Records
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Musically and emotionally gratifying, with a strong catharsis component, Maxine Linehan's holiday-themed project captures so much of what comes along with Christmas—poignant memories, hope, frustrations, gratitude, awe and empathy. The eclectic set list honors her European roots and adopted homes (painting a lovely view of "Moonlight in Vermont" and the "Holiday Edition" revision of the Manhattan-centric comic "I Think of You" that appeared with its original lyric on her earlier-issued Beautiful Songs). Her singing throughout is rich and glorious, with consistently involved presence and pensive phrasing. The orchestral work (music director/arranger Ryan Shirar, who also plays keyboards) is elegant, especially the strings. This is a class act all the way.

The release of these dozen dazzlers was preceded by This Time of Year's touching title song as a single, a representative sample of not just the affection that the full collection shows, but firmly focused on the pangs that come with the territory of honest reflection. Written by the artist, her producer/husband Andrew Koss (also contributing on guitar, keyboards, drums and programming), and the late Felix McTeigue, it dips deeply into the well of feelings about how the holidays can especially trigger thoughts of much-missed loved ones.

We get our musical theatre fix as well as a chance to shift our spotlight ahead to the coming transition (the annual New Year's out-with-the-old/in-with-the-new segue) with Sunset Boulevard's "The Perfect Year." It's uplifting and encouraging, and the nod to "Auld Lang Syne" is subtle enough to not feel trite, but just right. "Silent Night" is appointed as the rightful religious representative, with perhaps an implied aside that "All is calm, all is bright" might apply to a year (present company excepted). The mesmerizing Maxine Linehan sings from a place of understanding and commitment.

The varied selections hang together well, like a Christmas tree holding several ornaments that have been in your family for generations alongside shiny newer ones from a specialty shop and the 99-cent store. While Hugh Martin's tender imploring to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has attracted countless singers since Judy Garland first crooned it on film in the mid-1940s, it feels fresh and fully invested in—definitely not glossed over. Some somewhat recent (but not overexposed) numbers were added to the world's holiday mix when introduced by pop performers like Maroon 5 ("Memories") and Kelly Clarkson ("Underneath the Tree," co-written by her and Greg Kurstin)—in the otherwise esteemed company, this oh-so-bouncy bauble seems like an over-eager bit player trying to fit in. A fortuitous blend of the traditional and the contemporary on This Time of Year is attained with "Christmas the Way I Remember." The words written by Darren Holden of the male vocal group The High Kings are set to the traditional Scottish tune of "Loch Lomond." It's cozy nostalgia.

Ryan Shirar's lush/no-rush settings suggest taking time to take stock, taking a breath, and moving on. Maxine Linehan projects someone ready to do that and we're wise to welcome her as our surrogate, ruminating and remembering rather than burying our heads in the sand (or snow, this time of year). While it's a nod to the ghosts of Christmas Past, this will be a recording to remember for many a Christmas Yet to Come.

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