Album: Whitney Houston

One Wish - The Holiday Album, Arista
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There's an odd photograph in the CD booklet to Whitney's Christmas album - not of holly or snow, or fir trees or robins, but of a coal-effect fire in a squeaky-clean modern fireplace - the kind of thing Handy Andy might knock together in a few minutes out of MDF and beige marble-effect veneer. It's presumably intended to evoke comforting, hearth-and-home seasonal values, but instead implies the bland commercialism of the modern Christmas with surprising accuracy.

It's certainly more than appropriate for an album whose glutinous one-world sentiments are signalled both by the title-track "One Wish (for Christmas)" - yes, it's for world peace, just imagine that - and by the subtitle The Holiday Album, which plays to the contemporary American vogue for "inclusivity" and not wanting to seem disdainful of other, less fortunate religions, by replacing references to Christmas with the mealy-mouthed term "the holiday season". Although Whitney, well-known for her gospel roots, is obviously Christian to her toenails, she goes out of her way here to broaden her seasonal felicitations/overseas market (delete according to cynicism) with a pan-theological attitude that finds her, in "The Christmas Song", wishing listeners not just "Merry Christmas" but "Happy Hanukkah" and even "Happy Kwanzaa" . In Whitney's world, we can all join in!

On most of the tracks, she's working here with producer Mervyn Warren, whose arrangements are ambitious without being too overbearing. "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" and a medley of "Deck the Halls/Silent Night" are virtually perfect in conception and execution, the latter involving a subtle balance of piety and conviviality within a fusion-funk setting, and Whitney for once restraining her more far-fetched vocal strategies. (Warren himself, it transpires, is a gifted singer too, single-handedly overdubbing a vocal arrangement to "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" that sounds like all of Take Six at once). Elsewhere, she's not so self-effacing: you'd be amazed at how many syllables she can cram into the word "Noel", and there's an extraordinary "dab-a-doo-be" scat insertion in "The Christmas Song" just prior to the line "Santa's on his way". There's also an interesting vocal mid-section to "Little Drummer Boy", built on the percussive possibilities of the song's "pa-rup-a-pum-pum" motif (although we'll draw a discreet veil over the inclusion of daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown on the song's first verse, which should come with a diabetic warning).

Whitney's vocal excesses reach their apex (or nadir) on "I'll Be Home for Christmas", which features a quite absurd bout of sustained elision. It's impressive, but utterly unsuited to material more deserving of humble warmth and homely sincerity than the orgasmic ecstasy the prospect seems to stir in Whitney.