Albums

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

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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!

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Three albums to add to your library right now

Dustin Tebbutt – First Light

Vance Joy fans rejoice – for those of us who have outgrown Riptide and its fellows, Tebbutt’s latest release offers a perfect (dare I say, more grown-up) alternative. At once chilled out and uplifting, the gentle mix of acoustic guitar, light percussion and occasional layer of electronica, support Tebbutt’s floating vocal deliveries. Cue lazy Sunday morning.

Lakuta – Brothers and Sisters

If Western club music has you wanting a little more, look no further than the global sounds of Lakuta. Including musicians from Africa, Spain and the UK, this group combines the very best of danceable soul, disco and funk with socio-political statements, sensual Latin vibes and infectious Afro-beat rhythms.

Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

I don’t remember being this awestruck by musical charisma since I first heard Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs in my early uni days – Cohen’s latest album is absolutely bloody mesmerising. Skeletal accompaniments and gospel choirs take a backseat to musings that have been 82 years in the making. “I’m ready, Lord” growls Cohen, to which your ears will reply “Take me, take me now”.

Michael Buble: Nobody But Me (Deluxe Version)

michael-buble-nobody-but-me-2016-2480x2480Album: Nobody But Me (Deluxe Version)
Artist: Michael Buble
Label: Reprise Records
Released: October 21, 2016

RATING: 2.5/5 STARS

Michael Buble has been around long enough to hone his template to perfection; so while it is both comforting and disappointing to discover I could have written this review just as accurately without actually listening to his latest record, it is certainly not a surprise. Nobody But Me is yet another perfectly crafted album of knee-melting ballads, toe-tapping jazz, and pop tunes of the sweetest vanilla. Admittedly, there’s less of the latin influence I danced to incessantly when To Be Loved hit the shelves, and the brass blasts are fewer and smoother than those of its predecessor, but for the most part Nobody But Me is of the same mould.

There’s the uplifting but forgettable pop original (I Believe In You), the cheeky rock ‘n’ roll number (Nobody But Me), the guest cameo (Meghan Trainor, on Someday), the deliciously scathing revenge song (I Wanna Be Around), the no-brainer classic covers (My Baby Just Cares For Me, My Kind Of Girl), the classic cover that didn’t really work (God Only Knows…how much better this version could have been, were it not so slow and stilted) and thankfully, the gorgeous reimagining of a vintage sound (On An Evening In Roma). In between these certainties lie a few slower and/or ordinary numbers (The Very Thought Of You, Today Is Yesterday’s Tomorrow) that fill the gaps and carry us to the bonus tracks, if you’ve chosen the deluxe version for your purchase (not a terrible idea, as Take You Away is a fun little cha cha).

Consistency is usually reassuring, but this time around it’s made me restless to hear a little more daring from Buble. He must certainly be applauded for maintaining a fresh sound – and for offering new material alongside the classics – but Nobody But Me continues the trend of over-production in his more recent work. Gone is the rawness we heard in 2007’s I’m Your Man, and where is the innovation that created that extraordinary jazz cover of The Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love?

While the radio stations will likely delight in the cutesy ukulele that accompanies Buble and Trainor in the safe ray of sunshine that is Someday, I’ll listen to On An Evening In Roma and dream of bygone days when Buble’s albums oozed with nuance and romance.

Friday wrap-up: Szymon, The Basics & At The Dakota

Szymon – Tigersapp

3.5/5 stars

It is a great shame that Tigersapp will always sit in the shadow of its creator’s death; a greater shame still that there will be no follow-up (or three). This collection of dreamy indie-pop electronica is as gentle as it is layered, as intricate as it is sensitive – gently unpolished and somewhat unfinished, but captivating all the same. Lovingly constructed from a plethora of beautiful timbres and finely intersecting rhythms, Tigersapp showcases a flourishing musical talent with burgeoning potential. The spine-tingling keyboard riff of Golden is a standout, as is the honey-toned saxophone solo on Polen; and while Szymon’s vocals aren’t as strong as his songwriting, they serve their dreamlike purpose well enough.

The Basics – The Age Of Entitlement

1.5/5 stars

Gotye et. al. return with an acerbic take on Australian politics that is biting, but ultimately empty. Thrashing around from pub rock to brooding ballad, to Afro-beat, the result is an unconvincing album of pastiche that fails to truly engage. The band succeed most in Time Poor, a ranty rock number that damns the Western world’s glorification of ‘busy’; Roundabout weirdly channels George Michael’s Faith but also works to get the album grooving. Given the prodigious talent of the musicians at work here, it it surprising that The Age Of Entitlement casts such a wide net yet fails to bring home the goods.

At The DakotaStories EP

2.5/5 stars

Maybe I’m still suffering withdrawals from the infectious summer pop of Hungry Kids Of Hungary, but the retro groove of opener Peach Hat had me hooked. As a general rule, Northern Territory musicians At The Dakota dish out upbeat indie groove-pop with guitar, bass, drums, and sweetly melodic piano lines. It quickly turns into something more gritty though, as fast-paced lyrics fire in all directions above the chilled guitar backing. It’s smile-inducing and warm, but to simply describe this EP as ‘sunny’ would be to miss the infinitely cooler soul/rock undercurrent that occasionally makes itself known.

Listen on Bandcamp.

SOAK: Before We Forgot How To Dream

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SOAK: aka. Bridie Monds-Watson

Album: Before We Forgot How To Dream
Artist: SOAK
Label: Rough Trade Records
Released: June 1, 2015

RATING: 3/5 STARS

These days, it seems child prodigies are a dime a dozen (how else did The Voice Kids become a thing? *coughs*), so perhaps the least impressive fact about 19-year-old Bridie Monds-Watson – aka SOAK – should be her age. And yet, the maturity of both songwriting and delivery on Before We Forgot How To Dream makes it difficult to be entirely unimpressed. Because she is, of course, talented beyond her years. Endearingly earnest and refreshingly devoid of try-hard, Monds-Watson writes with a youthfulness that is inescapably relevant to this album of dark, soulful, indie-folk. (SOAK = soul + folk, you with me? Yep.)

“The teenage heart is an unguided dart/We’re trying hard to make something of what we are”, are her first words to us (in B a noBody). Sometimes throaty, sometimes whispy, SOAK’s vocals sit somewhere between Bjork and a younger Laura Marling, but have a distinctiveness that is all her own. The pulsing acoustic guitar lines, moody melodies, the dark and dangerous vibe; all stand in startling contrast to the childlike tones of Monds-Watson’s higher register, even as she manages to sound world-weary in the very next breath.

It may be the adolescent transparency that initially captures our attention, but Before We Forgot How To Dream grows in maturity as it progresses. The flow is concept album-like (a number of short ambient numbers link the anchor tracks with satisfactory ease), travelling through the bass ‘n’ drums-driven Sea Creatures, the gently reckless Garden (“I’d waste all my time on you if I could”) and finally to the murky whispers of “blind”. The innocence gradually fades in the wash, the vocals becoming more faded and cracked with time; you can practically hear Monds-Watson ageing. The astute poetry of the earlier B a noBody is replaced with streetwise cynicism by the time we reach Reckless Behaviour: “Slowly holding to things you told me/Most probably stolen from online poetry”.

No matter how much talent they ooze, ideally, debut albums leave their listeners wanting more. Before We Forgot How To Dream lingers a couple of tracks too long, utterly saturating us in SOAK’s dreamy, dark, indie-folk before it takes its leave. On the other hand, there is an abundance of confident musicality to praise. Damn these talented youngsters.

Michael Buble: To Be Loved

Strategically targeted album cover: ladies, please control your imaginations.

Album: To Be Loved
Artist: Michael Buble
Released: April 22, 2013

RATING: 3.5 STARS

From the baby-faced stare of the self-titled Michael Buble, to the seductively moody film-noir vibe of Call Me Irresponsible, the pop-Sinatra of the 21st century returns with an unashamedly sexed-up offering. Observe the suave confidence with which Mr. Buble appears to be ripping his tie from his throat, and the obvious absence of a wedding ring…which features quite prominently in almost every other photo in the liner notes.

Once I’d stopped laughing at the obvious marketing ploys, I approached To Be Loved with suitably low expectations.

In some ways, I was justified: the more successful Buble gets, the more he can smuggle his own staggeringly ordinary love ballads into an album that is otherwise full of beautiful classics. With the notable exception of the high-hitting single It’s A Beautiful Day (an arrogant rant by a rejected dude, that somehow turns out ridiculously fun), the original tracks by Buble and co. are largely forgettable fillers. Not to be cruel: they’re rather nice fillers, but fillers nonetheless. It’s big, swinging numbers like You Make Me Feel So Young, Come Dance With Me and Nevertheless (I’m In Love With You) that make the album solid. Add in an adorable rendition of You’ve Got A Friend In Me and you’re pretty set.

As always, Buble does best when he’s singing covers…solo. While old pals Naturally 7 provide a rich layer of harmonies in Have I Told You Lately That I Love You, Bryan Adams does nothing to help the tacky rhymes of original After All (“excited” and delighted” just don’t have class, sorry) and Reese Witherspoon by any other name would have been just as forgettable a Nancy Sinatra substitute in Somethin’ Stupid.

However, between the fluffy pop and guest vocals we didn’t pay to listen to, To Be Loved manages to give a hefty whack of sassy jazz, Sinatra suave, swingin’ brass and raucous refrains. Perhaps it’s only fair to stem the criticism and accept the album as the artist obviously intended it: to be loved.

While you’re reading this, listen dance to: Come Dance With Me