Christmas Album reviews: The Killers - Don’t Waste Your Wishes, Voces8 - Winter, She & Him - Christmas Party

Also Neil Diamond, Kurt Elling, and Cara Dillon

Andy Gill
Wednesday 21 December 2016 18:20
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The Killers, Don’t Waste Your Wishes

★★★★☆

Download this: Christmas In LA; Boots; Dirt Sledding; I’ll Be Home For Christmas; Don’t Shoot Me Santa

The title is instructional, and exactly appropriate for this anthology of The Killers’ annual Christmas singles, from which all proceeds go to the Product Red Aids charity. It’s to the band’s credit that they haven’t wasted the opportunity, either: resisting the temptation to just dash off some old standard, they’ve brought imagination and sometimes thought-provoking reflection to the task. And wry amusement too, as in their inaugural 2006 offering “A Great Big Sled”, which finds Brandon Flowers admitting, “Little boys have action toys for brains/I’m living proof it can last a long time”. Featuring the wistful hankering of a sun-bound soul to “roll around like a kid in the snow”, it’s one of several warm-weather seasonal plaints here, the starkest being their 2013 collaboration with Californian band Dawes on “Christmas In LA”. Here, despite the sunshine, it’s a bleak, midwintery mood for scuffling actors seeking purchase on the greasy pole of stardom: “There’s a well-rehearsed disinterest in the atmosphere/I don’t know if that’s what this town gave me, or if it led me here”.

That kind of ambivalence haunts most of these songs, from the bluntly realist survey of poor Joseph’s untenable position in the Nativity tale “Joseph, Better You Than Me”, where Elton John and Neil Tennant join the band in empathy for a hapless man cuckolded by God, to the protagonist of “Don’t Shoot Me Santa”, persecuted by teasing children for his belief in Santa Claus until he could “turn my cheek no longer”, a sly interpolation of the Christian message. Building from plodding piano blues to full-on Springsteen-esque melodrama, it’s the most potently-arranged piece here, though even jaunty novelties like “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball” and the mariachi-flavoured “Happy Birthday Guadalupe!” have much to recommend them.

Elsewhere, “Boots” adapts the theme of It’s A Wonderful Life – and some of its actual dialogue – with a freezing man praying to God for rescue (“You know it’s been so long since I rang one in,” he concedes sheepishly) and finding salvation in fond memories of family, frost and snowball fights: “So glad that they found me/Love is all around me,” he concludes – but is he still alive? Again, ambivalence stalks the song.

This year’s single is both the simplest and most moving, a version of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” presaged by Brandon Flowers’ account of how, as a nine-year-old, his family moved to Utah, where a teacher, Ned Humphrey Hanson, changed the course of his life by singing the song a cappella. Now 86, Ned sings it here again, pitch-perfect, joined in the later stages by Flowers and subtle tints of ghostly strings. It’s a piece that seems to embody Richard Dreyfuss’s admonition, on last year’s “Dirt Sledding”, that “there’s something to be said for being present, and not just getting one”. Merry Christmas, everybody.

Voces8​, Winter

★★★★☆

Download this: For Now I Am Winter; Nunc Dimittis; Plainscapes; In The Bleak Midwinter; The Fruit Of Silence

Rather than rehash the usual seasonal chestnuts, choral octet Voces8 have opted for a more climatic-impressionist approach to the Christmas album, the obverse to last year’s light-flooded Lux. There are a few well-known carols – including a particularly beguiling version of “In The Bleak Midwinter” – though the emphasis is on more contemporary works by northern composers, the choir’s luminous harmonies tinted by subtle dabs of harp, strings, celeste or piano as required. Olafur Arnalds and Arnor Dan Arnarson’s “For Now I Am Winter” establishes the mood of chilly wonder, while Arvo Part’s setting of the “Nunc Dimittis” sustains the religious connection. But the centrepiece is Peteris Vasks’ “Plainscapes” trilogy, with the vocals establishing a white-out landscape into which, halfway through the third section, arrive a small pack of wolves, evoked through imaginative touches of cello and violin. Magical.

She & Him, Christmas Party

★★★☆☆

Download this: All I Want For Christmas Is You; The Coldest Night Of The Year; Mele Kalikimaka

Not everyone would be brave enough to tackle Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You”, the most enduring recent example of a genuine Christmas classic, but M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel just about pull it off here by taking it in a different direction, with an old-school country/R&B makeover that finally persuades when the saxophone comes rasping in towards the end. It’s a courageous opener to a decent collection which explores different aspects of the duo’s chosen musical territory, from the Hawaiian number “Mele Kalikimaka” that offers Ward the chance to demonstrate his tasteful guitar skills, to their duet on the Mann/Weil rarity “The Coldest Night Of The Year”, where Deschanel banks up great girl-group harmonies. Ward’s Chuck Berry cover “Run Run Rudolph” is slightly under-powered, but there’s a rumbustious charm to the Tex-Mex-styled “Must Be Santa” (though their rhyming, in its list of presidents, of Richard Nixon with Hillary Clinton must cause some slight embarrassment).

Neil Diamond, Acoustic Christmas

★★☆☆☆

Download this: Do You Hear What I Hear; Children Go Where I Send Thee

If ever a voice could kill a party, it’s Neil Diamond’s. Within seconds of the opening song here, “O Holy Night”, his sententious delivery has cast a grim shadow on proceedings, from which the album struggles to recover. There’s intermittent relief in peripheral pleasures, like the lacy threads of tingling acoustic guitar and piano twinkling like frost about “Do You Hear What I Hear”, or the unusual pair of spirituals featuring the Blind Boys Of Alabama, “Go Tell It On The Mountain” and “Children Go Where I Send Thee”, but they’re not enough to lift the overall mood. Diamond drains every ounce of fun from “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, while “We Three Kings” is delivered in the robust tone of someone who’s never sung the school-kid joke version. His own contributions to the bulging corpus of Christmas song, meanwhile, fall well short of the expected standard: “Christmas Prayers” reshuffles sentimental seasonal cliches, fattened with lists of relatives, while “#1 Record For Christmas” is just greedily self-seeking – not to mention signally failing in its desire.

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Kurt Elling​, The Beautiful Day: Kurt Elling Sings Christmas

★★★★☆

Download this: We Three Kings; The Michigan Farm (Cradle Song); The Snow Is Deep On The Ground/Snowfall; Same Old Lang Syne

As befits the world’s most accomplished jazz singer, Kurt Elling somehow manages to steer clear of all the potential Christmas album pitfalls with The Beautiful Day. While not wanting to make an overtly religious album, he has nevertheless sustained its air of hope and wonder; although studiously avoiding cheesy sentimentality, he’s brought enjoyable vitality to dog-eared standards; and throughout it all, the grim spectre of rat-pack cabaret jazz is avoided. The result is an album of carefully-judged new arrangements which, like the Voces8 album, bring an apprehension of the season’s silence, snow and solitude – most clearly in Elling’s lyric “The Michigan Farm”, set to Grieg’s “Cradle Song”. Elsewhere, a swinging take on Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” balances a wistful version of Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne”; but the standouts are the thoughtful, extended explorations of “We Three Kings” and “The Snow Is Deep On The Ground/Snowfall”.

Cara Dillon​, Upon A Winter’s Night

★★★★☆

Download this: Upon A Winter’s Night; The Holly And The Ivy; O Come, O Come Emmanuel; Standing By My Christmas Tree

There’s enchantment aplenty in this traditional folk Christmas album – as is to be expected from a singer with a voice to charm the birds from the trees. Accompanied by a band led by her partner Sam Lakeman, Cara Dillon offers a seasonal selection infused with quiet gravitas and rustic charm. Her solo version of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is infused with reverent purity, as is her a cappella duet with her sister Mary on “O Holy Night”; while the use of a less well-known melody for “The Holly And The Ivy”, arranged for piano, accordion, bouzouki, fiddle and Uilleann pipes, brings a jaunty forward motion and uplift to a familiar theme. The album opens with the title track, a new song by Lakeman and son Noah in which the same line-up’s cantering groove cleverly conveys the urgency and excitement of the kings and shepherds headed for the stable; but here as throughout, it’s Dillon’s exquisite, sweet delivery that captivates.

Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood​, Christmas Together

★★☆☆☆

Download this: What I’m Thankful For (The Thanksgiving Song); What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?

One might have expected something more from country music’s undisputed power couple, but sadly, Christmas Together is literally the least that Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood could do: just 28 minutes of undistinguished, lacklustre performances in which Brooks demonstrates an at times hilarious inability to invest the cheesy seasonal cliches with sincerity. Yearwood fares better on a suitably sultry solo “Santa Baby” set to yawning ragtime trumpet and clarinet, and a version of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” originally intended as a duet until Brooks heard how sweetly his wife tackled the first verse, and wisely left it to her. But his hard-times drawl is simply unsuited to the sly charm of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, or indeed his own grating attempts at seasonal songwriting, “Ugly Christmas Sweater” and “Merry Christmas Means I Love You”. Better by far is the duo’s exercise in warm piety “What I’m Thankful For (The Thanksgiving Song)”, to which James Taylor adds a comforting extra blanket of emotional insulation.

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