Month: December 2016

In defence of an unabashed love for Mariah Carey’s ‘Merry Christmas’

71oanh-wkfl-_sl1500_

There are two types of people in the world…those who hate this album, and those who love it.

Gather ’round children, and let me tell you a story of the 90’s.

Once upon a time, before Michael Buble was a household name, before his Christmas album was a twinkle in a producer’s eye, there was Mariah Carey and Merry Christmas. The year was 1994, and this reviewer was a wee tot of 2, but she was destined to cross paths with Carey’s holiday album in just a few years…and the year after that…and the year after that…and all the years after those.

I’m not entirely sure when Merry Christmas first came on my radar – I was probably 5 or 6 – but I do know that after that first encounter, nothing has sounded more like Christmas to me since. Two decades later, all I require to get into the holiday spirit is to hear the first rippling piano chords of ‘Silent Night’ and I’m good to go.

Whacking great dose of nostalgia aside, it is my humble opinion that Merry Christmas also delivers a musical treat the likes of which Michael Buble has yet to top. This was my first encounter with a gospel choir, a Hammond organ, and a voice of superhuman capabilities, and my childhood imagination was entirely captivated by this ridiculously groovy take on the season.

The prime time for listening to Christmas music when I was a kid was in the car with Mum and younger bro, on our way to our grandparents’ for various festive visits (tree-decorating, setting up the inflatable pool, delivering presents…). This was a 40 minute trip – just enough to blast out the 38 minutes of MC – during which all three of us would pump ourselves up on holiday spirit, ready to decorate the Christmas tree with gusto upon arrival at our familial destination.

“She has such an incredible voice,” my mother would say, shaking her head in wonder at Carey’s vocal acrobatics. It was the only time I really heard Mum admire a musician, so I listened to the mind-boggling melisma with rapt attention. Carey’s voice sounded like some wondrous alien instrument, flying up and down octaves of notes with fearless abandon.

And then there was the gospel choir.

I had no concept of gospel music at age 7 or even 8, but listening to the joyful cloud of harmonies sounded to me like there was a crazy good party going on inside that tape cassette. It was also the first time I heard a Hammond organ…there were so many things to listen to! For me, Merry Christmas was a festive patchwork of musical magic with no comparison.

By age 9 I’d been playing classical piano for three years, and the prominent piano solos and accompaniments across the album (but perhaps especially in ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’ and ‘Jesus Oh What A Wonderful Child’) did much to reassure me that piano could be a ‘cool’ instrument, used for other purposes than Mozart. I promised myself I would learn such groovy riffs when I was older and had mastered Bach and Beethoven.

There were things I didn’t appreciate until I was older, too. As a child I couldn’t understand why there seemed to be so many things that made Carey sad at Christmas (‘Christmas: Baby Please Come Home, ‘Miss You Most At Christmas Time’)…surely this season was the best distraction from a lame boyfriend who’d dumped her unceremoniously? I didn’t understand the magnifying effect of Christmas until much later, although I’ve always tried to remember my childhood approach to heartache.

Perhaps the best thing about Merry Christmas however, was the way it drew my mother into as childish a state of Christmas excitement as our own. As the chorus of ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’ hit, Mum’s usually strict observation of driving safety would melt slightly, allowing her to take one hand off the steering wheel to punch the air with the ‘hey!’. We always knew it would be a good day if Mum was fist-pumping to MC.

I can’t be sure, because this is not the kind of thing grown-up people discuss, but I refuse to believe I am alone in this once-a-year obsession with a 90’s Christmas album (whoever DJs for Westfields clearly shares my love, for one). But as the years slip by and the baby-faced pop stars of today release their own takes on seasonal tunes (looking at you JB and Ariana Grande), the haters are so quick to trash my beloved MC.

Well, save your “bah humbug”s – the only crime Merry Christmas has committed here is to be so damn good it gets mercilessly overplayed. And may it be so for many years to come!

TV Review: The Right Note

screenshot-2016-12-16-at-18-23-13

The panellists of The Right Note, including: (L-R) Rod Yates, Lindsay McDougall, Danielle McGrane and Bernard Zuel. (image source)

This show so delightfully fits its title, there is really no need to say anything more.

But The Right Note, a new original TV series focused entirely on album reviews, live performances and interviews with up-and-coming musicians, is my new favourite way to spend screen time – so hear me out.

Our panellists are the best in the business: The Sydney Morning Herald‘s senior music writer, Bernard Zuel; editor of Rolling Stone Magazine Australia, Rod Yates; and entertainment journalist for Australian Associated Press, Danielle McGrane. Aussie rocker and long-time Triple J presenter Lindsay “The Doctor” McDougall hosts and contributes to the conversation, guiding us through the show with easy warmth.

Each episode includes commentary on the latest music news, three album reviews from the experts, and a live performance and interview with fresh, usually off-beat acts. At 35 minutes a pop, The Right Note is a quick injection of new music, presented by people with opinions worth listening to.

It’s a show for people with broad musical taste, too. Everyone from Pete Doherty to the Rolling Stones gets a look in, and as they wrap up each session the panellists drop recommendations for ‘albums you may have missed’…so whether you happily paddle down the mainstream, or proudly discover tunes ‘before they were cool’, chances are you’ll find something to your liking.

With the authority and perceptiveness of Stratton & Pomeranz’s At The Movies (ABC), and the easy lounge room discussion style of The Book Club (also ABC), The Right Note would surely be welcome on, well, our national telly channel. Surely that deserves 5 stars.

You can watch every episode of The Right Note, or just bite-size vids of the interviews and performances on Skipi TV, HERE.

Single review: Laura Marling’s ‘Soothing’

Four and a half stars

Slinky, seductive, and perhaps just a little coy, Laura Marling’s first single from upcoming album Semper Femina is as bewitching a herald of things to come as we could have hoped for.

Gone is the broody darkness, replaced by sensuality and tenderness. Gone are the earthy acoustic tones, replaced by sparse percussion and bluesy electric guitar. Somehow, we’ve ended up in experimental jazz territory, the likes of which are usually inhabited by Norah Jones. But Marling makes this strange new land her own.

Wafting delicately amongst the rhythmic gyrations and harmonic instability, Marling’s vocal has all the hushed intimacy of pillow talk, and all the confident authority of a narrator. It’s a combination of contexts that is as bewildering as it is bewitching, but when a cloud of strings lifts us into the dreamy surrender of the chorus (sounding a little as though it’s taken a leaf from Kate Bush’s book), all is deliciously clear.

The abundance of latex in the music video may spell it out, but the low purr of sexuality makes itself known through the songwriting alone. The tension of the verse melts into a gentle sigh of pleasure; Marling sings “I need soothing”, but the request sounds so fulfilled it seems to be uttered after the fact.

Soothing showcases a self-composed Marling, ready and willing to tackle her introspective themes with a softness she may not have known how to use before. It’s promising, it’s exciting and it’s bloody beautiful.

March 2017 can’t come fast enough.

Semper Femina is out March 10th, 2017 on Marling’s label More Alarming.