Christmas album reviews: Leona Lewis, Erasure, Bright Eyes, Mary J Blige, Richard Durrant

 

Leona Lewis: "Christmas, with Love" (Syco / RCA)

Save for the chipper new number “Mr Right”, which has a certain spark to it, this dismal offering exemplifies the worst tendencies of Christmas albums, with the ghastly bogus piety of “O Holy Night”, and a self-regarding “Ave Maria” swathed in cathedral reverb, compounding the listless lack of imagination regarding material and treatment. Producers Stannard and Howes replicate the Spector arrangements of “Winter Wonderland” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, the latter even including an identical baritone sax solo to that on the original. For all the subsequent developments in recording technology, that’s a battle they’re never going to win, especially given Leona Lewis’s shortfall in vocal character compared to Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love.

**

Download: Mr Right; One More Sleep

Erasure: "Snow Globe" (Mute)

Inspired by recent seasonal offerings from Kate Bush and Tracey Thorn, Erasure keep things spartan but soft on Snow Globe, using simple synth pads to underscore traditional fare such as “White Christmas”, “Silent Night” and a moving “In the Bleak Midwinter”. Adding a punchy techno undercarriage to “Gaudete” ushers in a new hybrid (trad-electro), while their own songs play intelligently with genre conventions: “Bells of Love” is a cute agnostic carol set to stalking electropop synths, while “Make It Wonderful” turns the gospel-to-secular crossover process of soul stars Sam Cooke and Al Green on its head by being a love song that could pass as a modern hymn. It’s entirely delightful, and Andy Bell has never sung better, discovering his “inner choirboy” again.

****

Download: Bells of Love; Gaudete; Make  It Wonderful; In the Bleak Midwinter

Bright Eyes: "A Christmas Album" (Saddle Creek)

There’s much to enjoy about this album initially released online in 2002 to benefit a Nebraska Aids project, and now made widely available. Recorded with friends in Conor Oberst’s house, it has  a nice, homely ambience which allows the imaginative arrangements to work their understated charm. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Silver Bells” have the ebullient, collective manner of carol-singers, while more delicate material such as “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” employ subtler blends  of vibes, bowed saw, lap-steel and piano to produce atmospheric effects, augmented on the latter by creaking-cradle noises and overheard ambient vocals. Rounding things off, Oberst’s slouchy piano version of “Blue Christmas” lightens the mood.

***

Download: Away in a Manger; Oh Little Town of Bethlehem; Silent Night; Silver Bells

Mary J Blige: "A Mary Christmas" (Verve/Interscope)

One hardly looks to Mary J Blige for restraint, but here the combination with David Foster’s orchestrations adds an extra  layer of icing to an already sickly cake. Even when things start  out sensitively, as with the twinkling celesta of “My Favourite Things”, they inevitably end up in a welter of soupy strings, with Blige seeking to import surplus emotion where none is required. Barbra Streisand, on “When You Wish Upon a Star”, is the best of her several duetters – there’s no desperate need to compete, as appears the case with Jessie J on “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, and the Clark Sisters on a caterwauling “The First Noel”. By contrast, Blige’s version of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” seems a model of cheery aptitude.

**

Download: This Christmas; When You Wish Upon a Star

Richard Durrant: "Christmas Guitars" (Long Man)

Richard Durrant’s Christmas album is brimful of technically impressive guitar playing on the folk/classical cusp, with nimble runs and deft arpeggios on tracks like “Winter Danza”, the Finnish tune “Joululaula” and Durrant’s own “An Acoustic Winter Solstice”, where he overdubs his quicksilver fingering with a range of instruments including twinkling celesta. Elsewhere, in “A Christmas Eve Lullaby”, the adults’ idealised cooing over their sleeping cherubs is periodically interrupted by the kids shouting “Wide awake!”, possibly the least twee use of children on a Christmas album. The only serious mis-step is having Barry Cryer intone the verses of “The Polar Bear” like a sententious judge, the least agreeable use of a grumpy grandad.

***

Download: An Acoustic Winter Solstice; A Christmas Eve Lullaby; Joululaula; Winter Danza

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